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Children learn about food production

PUBLISHED: 14:28 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Jake Freestone of Overbury Farms is trying to reconnect urban children with farming and the countryside

Jake Freestone of Overbury Farms is trying to reconnect urban children with farming and the countryside

Education, education, education... connecting urban children to the magic and mysterious ways of the countryside is of vital importance. Katie Jarvis visits a farm where pupils learn that sausages are actually made from pigs and that cows don't re...

THE CHILDREN gathered together in the kitchen gardens have seen magic before. The kind of sorcery that Harry Potter performs when he dons his invisibility cloak at Hogwarts; or that David Blaine does when he mysteriously transforms Queens into Aces in front of astonished passers-by in the street.


But this is a different kind of magic; a stronger magic. It's the kind that allows hard dry brown seeds to be pushed into the earth in the spring, only for a fresh plant - brimming with vibrant colours and edible roots - to appear a few months later.


After examining the gardens, these children - scions of a fast-food generation - go into the kitchens where Billy the chef has created yet more wizardry with the vegetables they've been gathering. He's roasted and glazed beetroot with maple syrup; turned carrots into soup, and butternut squash into risotto. Tentatively at first - some with reluctance and suspicion - the youngsters try a little... Put it into their mouths and muse. And when smiles replace frowns, Billy knows he's achieved as much as any Michelin-starred chef.


"Some of them hadn't tried vegetables like this before," says Jake Freestone, manager on Overbury Farms near Tewkesbury, where all of this is taking place. "But they absolutely loved them. The beetroot Billy roasted with maple syrup wasn't just a bit of over-boiled mush that sploshes onto your plate; it was delicious and they had a real enthusiasm for it."


Jake, and his boss - Penelope Bossom, owner of Overbury Farms - are part of an experiment. They've teamed up with an inner-city school in Birmingham in an attempt to reconnect urban children with farming and the countryside. These are children for whom grass is, more often than not, something that grows between cracks in the pavement. For them, the wide-open spaces of Overbury Farms' 3,500 acres are as exotic as the Taj Mahal.


But the pupils at Wychall Primary School don't just pitch up for a once-in-a-lifetime farm experience akin to an Alton Towers outing. They've struck up a proper relationship with Overbury that will see them visit several times in a year. They first arrived, wrapped up in warm coats and new wellies, last November when the wheat plants were beginning to poke their heads through the ground and the ewes were being mated. When they next poured off their coach in February - full of excitement to be back - the wheat was a little taller, and the lambs were being born. This month, the oilseed rape will have flowered and be in pod, and the salad onions ripe for picking.


During the months in between, the children can read 'Farmer Jake's' blog, which he posts on their school website, where he fills them in on farm life. In March, he posted a photograph of a muck spreader, heaping manure on different fields around the farm. "Some fields were grass and others were about to be ploughed up before being planted with game cover or spring barley... The organic manure is also very important to us as it will help retain moisture in the soil for the long dry summer months."



It's a big commitment for Overbury, in terms of the time and dedication staff put into the visits - and other educational activities. So why do it? For Jake Freestone, these children are the future. They have to understand the connection between farming and the landscape around them. And they need to understand the passionate commitment and high standards that define British farmers.


"We as a farming industry have done the ostrich act for too long," he says. "We need to establish a knowledge within our consumers that British food is produced to the highest welfare standards, to the best environmental credentials anywhere in the world. A classic example is sows in crates - that was banned in this country 10 years ago, yet in Denmark you can still find them - and Danish bacon is still the most popular bacon in this country. People need to tell consumers that's the way it is.


"You enjoy walking in the countryside and looking at the view - well, the view is there because farmers manage it. The only way to get this over is to invite people onto farms, to talk to them and try to answer questions. There are going to be more crises in food and farming, but knowledge should go towards helping us through them."


Make no mistake: Jake is talking about real life and real farming. For the children will also learn that the lambs they bottle-fed and stroked on their second visit are not just fluffy countryside accoutrements, designed to make the horizon look pretty. They're food that will end up on the shelves of the supermarkets their parents visit each week. "After they have been processed there should be about 8800 kg's of sheep meat worth to the farmer 19,360," Jake's blog tells them.


"Parents are almost embarrassed to explain that sausages are dead pigs, but children are much more accepting," Jake explains.


"When they came earlier in the year, we had some store lambs that weren't quite fit enough to be sold; they were in a pen and all the children were crowding round. I asked, 'Who's eaten lamb before?' A few hands came up. 'What did you eat?' 'A leg.' And on the live animal, we looked for the shape of that leg. Then we talked about how lamb chops come from the ribs, and they were feeling where they were. The children didn't have a problem with making that connection.


"This month when they visit, we're planning to have a lamb that's been killed that we're going to eat. So they'll have seen the whole cycle from its conception, through it being born, and then actually eating the produce. I'm quite confident that - vegetarians apart - they'll all try some."


What the children see for themselves is the quality of life those animals enjoy, running around in the fresh air on Bredon Hill - the ultimate free range. "They also know that Tod, the shepherd who looks after the lambs, loves them and does everything he can to keep them alive. But the only reason we do that is because we want to eat them at the end of the day, and we explain that to them right from the start."


If you think this sort of interaction between schools and farms is unnecessary - or simply a pleasant day out for smog-clogged youngsters - you might want to read the survey conducted by the magazine Country Life. They asked urban and rural children aged seven to 14 a series of questions about the countryside. The results were both astounding and deeply troubling. More than half had no idea where acorns came from; 80 percent were flummoxed by the term 'gamekeeper'. (Guesses included someone who plays Nintendo or who looks after Pokemon.)


When the Dairy Farmers of Britain tried a similar exercise, they were dismayed to discover that thousands of British children thought cows laid eggs. More than one in 10 eight-year-olds could not say where pork chops come from, and even more were clueless about yogurt.


As for beef burgers? Presumably they originate from McDonald's.


But don't laugh at these answers, says Gary Richardson. If children aren't being taught about the countryside, it's natural for them to get things wrong. He is chief executive of The Countryside Foundation for Education (CFE) that, for the last 22 years, has worked to ensure children from all over Britain have access to the countryside. This charity now provides fun and educational lessons in the outdoors for up to 330,000 schoolchildren each year through its Countryside Live events and visits to farms.


He's at pains to point out that it's not just about "a day out in the countryside". "It's so much more than that," he says. "It's about making links for children so they can understand how the countryside and environment are managed; where food comes from and how it's produced; about the environment and its needs; and it's about explaining to children how their lifestyle choices will affect them and society as a whole."


He quotes findings that one in five children never visits the countryside. Convert that into numbers, and you're looking at the fact that more than a million children in this country have an exclusively urban existence. To compound that, a further 17 percent have been to the countryside "once or twice". It is, Gary Richardson says, the concrete generation.


"It probably goes back to a change in lifestyle in the '60s and '70s when the link between town and countryside disappeared and people's ways of life changed. Both parents were working, ready meals were available, and that's why the food link was lost. With more income coming in, people started to go further afield rather than visit somewhere in this country for a holiday. If the kids want to go to Florida, it might be difficult to persuade them that a farm in Worcestershire is a better option."


The result, inevitably, has been a disconnection. People who are fed up of living in towns move to the countryside where they object to the noise of tractors and the smell of manure. Their children wear 90 trainers which shouldn't get muddy and they end up sitting indoors playing solitary computer games.


It might be a parody, but it's one that contains more than a grain of truth. Gone are the days when children helped with the harvest or milked the cows before school. Gary and the CFE can't bring those days back, but they are determined to re-establish an understanding of the countryside and the issues surrounding it; to encourage youngsters to respect the environment around them.


It's a policy that can have some unexpected side effects, too. "We held one of our Countryside Live events in the M62 corridor, which featured some llamas from a farm in Bradford," Gary Richardson says. "I happened to come across a teacher who looked absolutely stunned. When I asked what was wrong, he pointed to a boy who was sitting with one of the llamas. This teacher told me, 'I've never seen him connect with any other living thing the way he's doing now; he's lit up. In fact, he's spoken more words to me this morning than he has all term.'"


Thanks to these sorts of initiatives, things are changing. We've just had the Year of Food and Farming, which began last September and is due to end next month. It brought interested groups together to promote healthy living by giving children direct experience of food, farming and the countryside. A study conducted under its auspices revealed that children with limited or no experience of the countryside are significantly less likely to care where their food comes from; that city children demonstrated a far greater ignorance, and were less likely to help with food preparation at home.


Lord Apsley of Cirencester Park is opening up his land for a CFE 'Estate Day' on June 5, which will include a tour of the arable farm and a woodland trail. But he's anxious to point out that not all ignorance of the countryside is confined to inner cities. "Cirencester is classified as a rural area, yet some of the children who live there have no more idea than children from the centre of Birmingham. When we've had them on the farm, I've been really quite surprised at the things they didn't know. They may be in the middle of Cirencester, but their parents might not have access to the countryside; these children might still spend their recreational time sitting in front of a television. It's madness that they don't know where their food comes from; these are important issues that encompass health, the environment and the 'green' agenda. We have to make sure these sorts of children don't get overlooked."


Jake Freestone at Overbury couldn't agree more. They welcome as many different children - local and inner city - as they can onto the farm, for good reason. "We have to take control of our own destiny," he says. The more educational visits we can manage - in fact, the more understanding people have in general - the more we're likely to achieve this, and the better that will be for the future both of farmers and the countryside."



Overbury Farms at Overbury, near Tewkesbury, will be taking part in Open Farm Sunday on June 1 from 10am-3pm. Among other activities will be tractor and trailer rides around Bredon Hill and livestock to have a look at, all free of charge. For more information visit www.overburyestate.co.uk and www.openfarmsunday.co.uk. You can read Jake's blog at www.farmerjakef.blogspot.com


As part of the Calcot Manor Hotel Country Fair (June 21 & 22), Beaufort Polo Club will feature a charity polo match on Sunday, June 22 to raise funds for the Countryside Foundation for Education (CFE) and Tusk. For more information, contact the club at Down Farm, Westonbirt near Tetbury, 01666 880510, or visit www.beaufortpoloclub.co.uk. You can find out more about the work of CFE by ringing 01422 885566 or logging onto www.countrysidefoundation.org.uk


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