Barleylands Farm Park has been engaging children with the food and farming story for the last 36 years. Hannah Park spoke to director Chris Philpot to find out more.
Since it first opened its gates in 1984, education and providing a platform for it to take place has, and continues to be, the cornerstone to activity at Barleylands Farm Park in Billericay, Essex.
What began as an on-farm machinery exhibit is now one of South East England’s most well-known educational, farming and craft centre attractions welcoming nearly 20,000 school children each year thanks to a dedicated education team.
“Our father, Peter, is very keen to pass on knowledge, he always has been,” says Chris.
“It all really started with him wanting his children to remember how farming was when he and his father before him started and the conditions, tools and implements they had to work with at that time.”
Now a third generation family business, the Philpot family started farming in Essex in 1937.
Their business has grown significantly since then and between them, the family now operate various farming and other enterprises across multiple sites in Essex, Suffolk and further afield.
Diversification has been one of the means to business growth, and on the 300 hectare (740 acre) Barleylands Farm site now sits one of South East England’s most popular educational farming and craft centre attractions, Barleylands Farm Park, alongside a commercial arable enterprise.
The journey to the farm parks’ present day set-up began back in the 1970s, and by the end of the decade Chris recalls the farm having ‘literally hundreds’ of old farming implements his father had collected from auctions at the time.
“So many old tractors and pieces of equipment were sitting in old redundant buildings on the farm, so Father decided to open it up to the public and start educating school children,” he says.
“It was very much a vintage museum come agricultural collection to start with, before a few animals were introduced a few years later for the public to see – but as it stood it just couldn’t make itself pay.”
“They can see the whole process of, literally, field to folk in one day.”
After studying at Wye College, Chris returned to the family business in the early 1990s, closely followed by his brothers, Andrew and Stuart. All three remain involved in the Barleylands business in some way, alongside running others of their own.
Recalling spending some time working in the museum when he was younger, Chris says: “In its former format you could see it just wasn’t appealing to the young, there wouldn’t be any repeat visitors. I suppose once you had seen it once, that was it.”
By the mid-1990s, the first major development in building up Barleylands to what it is today got underway with the conversion of farm buildings into craft units.
Barleylands was later awarded a rural development grant in 2002 which facilitated the relocation of the farm park from its original site in the middle of the farmyard, to a nearby greenfield site.
This in turn allowed further growth of the craft units which now also make up a big part of activity now, offering a platform where local crafts people who are either making things and/or educating through their work can be based. More than 50 workshops are now offered, in everything from cake making to glass blowing.
“This [relocation of the farm park] was a big turning point for us,” Chris says. “It allowed us to remodel and build up the platform for education we have today. The farm park has continued to grow and we’ve continued to invest.”
Expediential growth aside, the ethos at Barleylands remains the same with its objective remaining that of showing the general public, and children especially, where their food comes from and some of the processes involved.
“We need to open more people’s eyes to what is out there and what is going on in the countryside, which unfortunately a lot don’t fully grasp,” Chris says.
The fully immersive school days now on offer at Barleylands offer a somewhat unique experience.
Spearheaded by Karen Watson, who joined the business 10 years ago, these are often based on tailoring a visit to suit the national curriculum needs of a school as well as the abilities and ages of visiting children which, Chris says, is one of Barleylands’ particular strengths.
A dedicated educational team now run bespoke themed days on everything from edible science, habitat and food chains, stone age to iron age and rocks and soils.
Karen says: “Whatever the topic in the curriculum, we can weave in where food comes from and how farmers create, as well as protect, the environment. We are also able to talk about the broader role food and farming plays in society and introduce school children to the highly skilled jobs you can do in agriculture.”
With a large, working arable enterprise in operation alongside the farm park business at Barleylands, visitors, Chris says, are able to see what farming on a commercial scale looks like, while smaller plots within the farm park allow visitors, and school visits especially, to have their own experience.
“We grow the raw ingredients here [in the smaller plots], which the children can pick, use to cook with and later try the food they make at the end of the day. They can see the whole process of, literally, field to fork in one day – something which has been the mantra of the industry for decades now. And we are delivering on that, we don’t just say it, we do it.”
The success of the educational activity though, Chris says, would be nowhere near where it is today without the team of people who may it happen.
“Karen has absolutely revolutionised the educational relationship we have with schools and has taken us to a different level. The effort, energy, drive and determination she has got to make things happen is phenomenal.”
“To be inclusive of all individuals needs now can be so difficult, but Karen and her team do that. They’re amazing at what they do and how they make things happen and the ideas they come up with.”
The attraction’s popularity is certainly showing no signs of let-up, with visitor numbers on the up from between 40,000-50,000 in the early 2000s to up to 170,000 per year now.
And although business as usual is impossible this year amid the covid-19 pandemic, Chris says it had given the business a chance to step back and consider its next steps. Having recently got planning permission for an extension to the farm park.
But one isolating factor is not the key to success, says Chris, and in a nutshell comes down to delivering a product people want to a consistently high standard.
Its location on London’s urban fringe also ticks the location box and it is supported by the Essex NFU Members Trust to fund the cost of travel for up to 20 schools per year.
“We have a relationship now with probably 60 per cent of primary schools in Essex,” Chris says. “If what you’re offering is educational and you tick the right boxes, schools will flock to you.
“But for visitor footfall in general, you’ve got to go down the quality route. People want quality toilets, they expect quality food and in our experience they are prepared to pay for an experience if you do it right.
“We’re also lucky to have highly-regarded business involved, with quality products and a good reputation which certainly also have their part in drawing more people to the site.”
Although the attraction has had a challenging year amid Covid-19 regulations, Chris says he is confident that people will continue to value the countryside, perhaps even more so now.
“It’s [therefore] important to continue to offer that facility for people to come and learn.
“It’s always been our dream to educate more children – our job will never be done, but as demand increases, we’ll carry on trying to add more facilities to accommodate it.
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