Open Farm Sunday 2017 is on June 11. We spoke to three experienced host farmers to find out why they think the event is so important...
If you had Open Accountants Office Sunday, it wouldn’t work as well. People are naturally interested in farms, their beautiful surroundings, and the work farmers do to look after the countryside,” says Ali Hunter-Blair.
While he stresses he doesn’t mean any disrespect to accountants, he points out that farming and the work farmers do captures the imagination of everyone, young and old. For this reason the public want to take the opportunity created by Open Farm Sunday, and look around the very places that protect our beloved rural vistas, and produce our food. If you had Open Accountants Office Sunday, it wouldn’t work as well. People are naturally interested in farms, their beautiful surroundings, and the work farmers do to look after the countryside,” says Ali Hunter-Blair.
This, says Ali, goes a long way towards overcoming one of the biggest challenges facing modern farming today: consumers not understanding the connection between farming and the produce they buy.
To demonstrate this Ali tells a story about a teacher he knows who teaches youngsters in rural Oxfordshire. “Some of the children he teaches couldn’t connect a beef burger to a cow, and that terrifies me,” he says. “These were not inner-city teenagers, these were teenagers living in a rural area of Britain.”
This, he stresses, is why helping consumers understand farming is so vital. As he says, it’s consumers that ultimately hold the future of farming in their hands. “These are the people who will make the difference to farmers’ fortunes and farming’s future,” he continues.
“Helping consumers understand what farming is really about through Open Farm Sunday is vital to getting their support, and ensuring a sustainable future for agriculture in the UK.”
In today’s social media-dominated society, understanding farming is critical to combat the misleading messages put on Facebook and Twitter, often by those with an anti-farming agenda.
“Visiting a farm means people see with their own eyes what happens on farms across the UK,” explains Alastair, who featured in Channel Four’s ‘First Time Farmers’ programme.
“As a result, if they see something that discredits farming on social media, they will think, ‘that’s not what I saw on the farm I visited’.
“Open Farm Sunday offers farming the potential to set the record straight.”
An example of this is that many consumers don’t understand that British farmers adhere to much higher welfare standards than those met by countries outside of Europe – countries some major retailers continue to import produce from. On top of this, growers within the UK and Europe have to observe much tighter rules on using herbicides and pesticides on crops compared with nations outside the EU.
“Using Open Farm Sunday to help people understand this, will mean that, when incorrect information goes viral, people will understand it is in fact often a load of nonsense,” adds the sheep and arable farmer. “It’s an opportunity to dispel the negative myths and propaganda that’s put out there about the industry.”
However, key to this is ensuring open days are fun, as well as educational.
To ensure everyone has fun on the day, he provides short and long walks around the farm, a chance to get close to its lambs, sheep and piglets, and learn about the crops he grows and the wide variety of products that use wheat, barley and maize – the types of crops grown on the farm.
He also explains that visitors on Open Farm Sunday are always amazed at the wool-shedding sheep.
“People were fascinated by our wool-shedding sheep, they didn’t realise they existed,” he says. “It means that when visitors then see the sheep in a field, looking a bit scraggy, they understand it’s meant to look like that, it’s not a sheep that’s being kept badly, it’s because their wool is falling out as
it’s meant to. “Again, this demonstrates how Open Farm Sunday helps people understand what really happens on the farm, and being able to separate the facts from the fiction.”
While he loves taking part, and feels the effort of taking part is definitely worth it, he explains that doing it every year would be overkill for his business. “I want to ensure it’s different enough every time I take part to attract people,” he continues.
"It isn’t just about getting the farming and production message out there, it’s about bringing everyone together. It’s all about community spirit.”
That’s the reason Cambridgeshire farmer Michael Sly has been opening his gates to the public since Open Farm Sunday started back in 2006. It’s also why his event provides visitors with a seriously wide range of things to see and do, and invites a local school to take part and raise money for the children’s nominated good cause.
Michael’s Peterborough business consists of three farms covering 1,600 hectares, specialising in growing wheat for milling purposes, peas, sugar and mustard for Colman’s of Norwich.
But the Open Farm Sunday events of today have changed dramatically from those ten years ago, Michael reflects. He remembers in its first year it had a handful of visitors, but things quickly grew from there.
“At our first event we probably had about a dozen people and we took them around the farm for a drive,” he explains. “But each year we’ve grown and grown.”
One way he’s achieved this has been to provide a tractor and trailer ‘safari’ for visitors, which finishes with a look at the farm’s produce. He also teamed up with the Peterborough Farm Machinery Preservation Society when it needed a new location for its vintage weekend show.
Now the society provides visitors with plenty of machines from yesteryear to look at and watch in action, as enthusiasts plough on Michael’s land to show off the vintage machinery.
The society also helps out on the day’s ‘pick your own potatoes’ event, and helps raise money for the East Midlands Air Ambulance.
Michael has trained people who enjoy interacting with the public on aspects of the farm to ensure visitors are shown a world they often don’t even know exists.
A key reason for this, he explains, is because he is proud to produce the food consumers eat, and wants to highlight the journey that produce takes to reach retailers’ shelves and then onto our plates.
“I also want to show that we do a lot of things for the environment, bringing it together as a celebration of what we do,” he says.
For Matt Naylor, Open Farm Sunday is not only a prime opportunity to show people his farm, it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate how it helps maintain the local economy.
The 450-acre farm in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which is home to Naylors Flowers, will be opening its gates to highlight the role it plays in keeping money within the local rural community.
“I want to show how our business fits in to the rural economy, and how we work together with others,” continues Matt, a Nuffield scholar and a former trustee of the charity, Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF).
“There are lots of businesses working together to keep the money locally, I want to show visitors how the economy works and the scale of it, too.”
Currently, the family-run farm produces around 50 million cut flower stems a year, including perennial flowers such as delphiniums, sweet Williams and alliums. The business, which sells to Waitrose, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, also grows 2,000 tonnes of potatoes.
However, Matt explains that he’s worried that when people drive by the farm there’s a lack of understanding of just what it’s doing.
“I’m concerned that when people drive by our business they’ll see lots of stores, a lot of traffic coming and going out of the plant, and don’t really know what’s going on inside,” he continues.
For that reason, Open Farm Sunday provides an excellent opportunity to show those living in the surrounding area what the farm does. On top of that, Matt points out, it’s a chance for visitors on the day to enjoy the wonderful sight of large fields of flowers.
“We don’t have village fetes and I just thought it would be a great way to interact with our local community and village,” Matt continues.
“I want to try and build up people’s awareness of flowers and ornamentals, and hopefully they’ll take things away from it and they’ll develop an understanding of what we do.”
So how does Naylor Flowers prepare for Open Farm Sunday? Matt explains he likes to think big. “I don’t like doing anything small, so I aim to get 1,000 to 2,000 people this year,” he says. “When I tell my team of people that, they look mortified, but as I explain to them, we’ve got plenty of fields.”
He also has displays and other businesses taking part on the day, to provide those visiting the farm with a wealth of information. This, he says, is all part of helping visitors understand the importance of the farm in the local economy.
“We’ve involved lots of businesses and organisations that we interact with, such as the RSPB, some of our customers and suppliers, and hopefully, at least one of the supermarkets we deal with,” Matt says.
“I’ve only had positive responses from those who want to get involved – there’s so much enthusiasm there for shouting about what we do as farmers and growers.”
But for potential visitors wondering whether they will be bombarded with information, Matt stresses that he’s keen to avoid too much communication. He doesn’t want visitors to feel like there are lots of messages being pushed on to them.
Instead, he aims to develop a more neighbourly approach to the farm’s open day.
“I think it’s good to have personal neighbourly relationship with the public,” he says.
“Having these one-to-one relationships is really important, and that’s my main basis for opening up our farm.”
Find out more
For more information visit the Open Farm Sunday website.