A farmer's eye view

Greg Dalton on his farm with sheep and hills in the background on his phone doing FaceTime a Farmer

With three young children of his own, North Riding & Durham County Chairman Greg Dalton is well used to making farming interesting to the uninitiated. And with a real interest in encouraging the next generation, not to mention connecting with members of the public, he jumped at the chance a few years ago to build a relationship with his local primary school.

Starting with a trip in with his tractor, he progressed to taking in some sheep and providing a shearing demonstration, and was amazed that despite the school’s rural location only about half the children had any knowledge of farming.

Armed with this experience, the opportunity to get involved with FaceTime a Farmer really appealed. “I saw it as a chance to do more, and connect with urban children without having to physically go to the school,” he said. “The process of signing up was very straightforward and before I knew it, I’d been paired with a primary school in Cumbria.”

The initiative that’s taken the farming world by storm was the brainchild of Cambridgeshire farmer, Tom Martin, who began with a weekly video conversation with a primary school in New Haven. This ran as a year-long pilot before Tom started to work with LEAF and FACE to enrol other schools and farms.

Today there are 70 classrooms and 100 farmers signed up to FaceTime a Farmer – thanks partly to the fact that participants only need a smartphone, an internet connection, and ten minutes to half an hour free once a fortnight.

Unlike one-off farm visits or campaigns, the regular sessions give children the opportunity to engage with seasonal progression on the farm. The structure of the sessions varies but discussions can focus on photos and videos sent in beforehand, or areas of the curriculum that have links to agriculture. Using the time to enrich the existing learning process is an obvious incentive for teachers, and the use of technology negates any need to arrange a trip to the farm.

Through the scheme, farming is often brought to children who have no other contact with the countryside, and who would struggle to benefit from a farm trip.

For Greg the technology was a little challenging, given the lack of broadband outside his farmhouse. As a result all his sessions with the children at Allithwaite Primary were staged from his kitchen table. Plans to try and broadcast from the Highland Show ultimately fell victim to a lack of signal, but he hopes to maybe stage something from this year’s Great Yorkshire Show.

“The class I connect with are very young, Year 1 and Reception children, so we have to keep things simple,” he said. “I talk generally about farming and our farm and between January and April last year I did a 15-minute weekly session. We had to have a break during lambing but then picked it up again later in the year.

“I was delighted at how engaged the children were, asking lots of questions… some of which were very challenging.”

Speaking to high level teaching assistant Katie Hodgson, she was full of praise for the imaginative approach.

Although Allithwaite is a rural school, only a couple of farming families attend so there was plenty of scope to engage with the children, she says.

The technology was also a bit challenging for the school and that occasionally led to the sessions being done by text message, but she stressed how much the children enjoyed themselves – loving everything from Greg’s Swaledale sheep to the pink headphones he was prone to wear thanks to his daughter’s colour choice.

“Greg is a real character and was great with the children – who were quite young for FaceTime a Farmer,” said Katie. “He was sure to give them a bit of homework but they also delighted in returning the favour! When he couldn’t tell them exactly how many lambs he’d had, they insisted he find out and report back.

“He quite often had us in stitches, but the learning opportunity was immensely valuable and we can’t wait to get started again.”

For Greg, he relished getting the different questions and said the chance to talk to the next generation was especially valuable.

“In many ways more recent generations have lost their connection to food, where it comes from and how it is produced. This undoubtedly has implications for their children’s level of understanding. FaceTime a Farmer gives the industry a chance to address that.”

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