Heather Tarplee writes: We have had a special year here at Wick Court, one of three farms owned and run by the educational charity Farms for City Children (FFCC). 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the very first group of children arriving to spend a week as farmers here in Arlingham, Gloucestershire.
Although that felt like a big milestone we are in fact the ‘youngest’ of the three farms with Nethercott in Devon clocking up 40 years and Treginnis in Pembrokeshire 30. With each farm welcoming 1,000 inner-city primary school children every year the mathematicians amongst you can work out how many children’s lives have been touched or changed since Sir Michael and Lady Clare Morpurgo founded the charity back in 1976.
Having both worked as teachers, the Morpurgos realised that for many children their knowledge of rural life, farming and where their food came from was based mainly on images seen on TV or films. They felt immersion in rural life and learning by doing real, hands-on tasks, would be beneficial for so many children, especially those growing up in inner-city and urban areas, with limited experience of the world beyond their immediate environment.
Over 40 years later many children are still disconnected from the countryside and still rely on screens to gain information about food and farming so a week on an FFCC farm is as relevant as ever and can be life-changing.
Adam Henson and Sir Michael Morpurgo (founder)
The children come in groups of 30 to 36, with their teachers, and arrive with their wellies on a Friday afternoon for a seven day stay. They are settled into our beautiful, moated, Elizabethan manor house then are issued with overalls and waterproofs and from Friday evening they are outside on farm jobs. Their day on the farm starts before breakfast with housework, morning feeding, collecting eggs and letting out the chickens. After a hearty cooked breakfast they are back outside mucking out stables, feeding calves, forking silage or working in the kitchen gardens and orchards.
After more delicious home cooking for lunch, afternoon jobs can include pig weighing, moving and sorting sheep, bedding out, fruit juicing, sowing, planting, weeding and harvesting in the garden, laying paths, moving firewood, digging thistles … if it needs doing we find a way to involve the children.
Finally after tea it’s evening jobs – collecting eggs, shutting in the poultry, feeding, checking the lambing shed, and of course over the winter these jobs involve being outside away from streetlights, a chance to enjoy the night sky.
at the bird hide
For children who may never have worn wellies, never met a farm animal face to face let alone being asked to go in with a bucket to feed them, never run in a muddy field, the first few days can be quite a shock. But I’m always amazed by how quickly they adapt, gain confidence and by the second half of the week they really do become proficient farmers. And all the while they are busy ‘doing’; these 8 to 11 year-olds just soak up knowledge, farming facts, names of breeds, life cycles and new vocabulary as well as getting fitter, more co-ordinated and most importantly learning to work as a team.
Alongside the routine farming the children go on a long muddy walk, we take them bird-watching, beekeeping in the summer and on a gamekeeper walk in the winter. They all get a chance to cook their own dinner using farm produce and on their last full day they spend the afternoon in our ‘Woodland area’ building dens, making willow headdresses, weaving with wool from our sheep, making clay creatures and baking bread in the outdoor pizza oven. And we finish with stories from the farm around the campfire while we enjoy the bread rolls washed down with our home-pressed apple juice from our historic orchards.
We operate all year round, during school term time and every week we see the enormous benefits to these children. For some it’s the fresh air and exercise, for some it’s the home made, home reared, home cooked – and totally delicious – meals. For some it’s respite from stressful situations at home or academic pressures at school and for some it is the routine that they often lack in their home lives. All of them benefit from being immersed in a beautiful location and the natural world, so many comment on the peace and quiet, the fresh air, the views and the friendliness of people they meet. And for so many it’s the huge boost to their self-confidence when they are trusted with real jobs, caring for the animals and that sense of satisfaction that comes with completing a job well done.
FFCC has a Head Office in Exeter where a small team of fundraisers raise the money which allows us to subsidise every child by 55% of the true cost of a week on the farms, and for those most in need there is extra help available. The farms are all stunning, listed buildings with repair bills to match…and at a time when school funding is being squeezed more schools are asking for extra help with funding the trip. However with the many pressures on children, and as they spend more and more time looking at life through a screen, the benefits of a week doing real farming on a real farm is as important or maybe even more important than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
For more information go to: farmsforcitychildren.org
photos: Heather Tarplee
cartoons: Farms for City Children website