Engaging visitors at Open Farm Sunday

Tom Allen Stevens, Open Farm Sunday Regional Co-ordinator

Tom Allen Stevens, Open Farm Sunday Regional Co-ordinator

In the tenth of our fortnightly series of posts all about Open Farm Sunday and engaging the public on your farm, Tom Allen-Stevens, South East Open Farm Sunday Regional Co-ordinator, tells us how he engages the public on his farm at Open Farm Sunday.

I don’t much care for BBC’s Countryfile, but there is one part I really enjoy. Ever since they made Adam’s Farm a regular feature, it’s made the programme worth watching.

What makes Adam’s Farm stand out? I think it’s the fact that he’s an actual farmer, talking about something he is passionate about, and it’s usually on his own farm. There’s an honesty about the way he pats his Gloucester bull or grasps an ear of wheat and then tells you about.  It really does make compelling viewing.

But there’s nothing mind-blowingly fascinating about Adam’s Farm – it’s not like he’s trialling a GM crop, forging a solution to TB or inventing a new way in wool. It’s just the ordinary goings on of a Gloucestershire farm. And I think that’s the secret to it, it’s why the programme draws in nine million viewers every week, and what makes 200,000 people visit farms on Open Farm Sunday.

They’ve come to meet the farmer – experience a little of what it’s like to grow food and care for the countryside. So what I always try to do when I’m showing visitors around or explaining something is tell them about my farm from my point of view. I keep it personal and tell them about the things I enjoy, or dread, or what matters to me – it’s when you’re at your most honest, and most comfortable, and I think people really appreciate it.

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I’ve a few key props I always use. Firstly, an apple and a knife. I remember when I was first shown the apple trick, and it just clicked – have a look at the download instructions to find out more. It’s a really great way to tell the farming story.

Also something to taste – I usually cut up some bread and provide some rapeseed oil for people to dip it in. It makes the whole experience more memorable if you engage more of the senses. And then something for them to take away. One thing I found works really well (and it sounds absurd) is to pull up a wheat plant, and then share round the tillers to all the children in the group. We’ll count the grain sites, number of leaves or judge how much disease it’s got. You’ll often find those children still have their special ear of wheat when they leave the farm.

I always try to keep it positive too – there are all sorts of negatives in farming, but Open Farm Sunday is about how my farm’s making a positive contribution to farming. So negatives are banned – it makes you feel much better about yourself if you just concentrate on the positives, and I swear it’s more engaging. If you introduce a bit of magic that helps – everyone knows the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, so why not give a child a bean and suggest it may be a magic one? Or could there be fairies in your wood?

My final rule is to keep it jargon-free. You’d be surprised at the words we use that mean something totally different to non-farmers, or are complete gobbledegook. Headland, drill, for instance. An acre is about the size of a football pitch, a heifer is a female cow and an agronomist a crop doctor.

I think we all admire the way Adam tells us about his farm in such an engaging and open manner. But I think every farmer can do the same – we all have a fascinating story to tell, and we’re at our best when we’re on our own farm telling people about the things that truly matter to us.

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