Teaching school children how food is grown is just one benefit of the work of Norfolk-based charity the Papillon Project. The charity’s founder Matt Willer told Clemmie Gleeson that farmers have played a big part in its success so far.
As schools reopen across the country, Norfolkbased charity the Papillon Project is preparing for its busiest term yet, creating and supporting school allotments with the help of the county’s farmers.
Matt Willer, the charity’s founder, says: “Farmers are absolutely key to helping us inspire children to grow their own food and enjoy outdoor learning.” As well as providing opportunities for students to learn about food production, nature and the countryside, allotments can also improve attendance and overall well-being, he adds.
Now working with 10 different high schools across the county, Matt’s first steps into school allotments was at Reepham High School and College where he was a history teacher.
A keen allotmenteer himself, Matt was well aware of the mental and physical benefits of growing food and wanted to share his passion with students.
As the project grew in popularity the site also grew, to fill its current one-hectare (2.5-acre) plot.
Besides the main production area with raised beds made from upcycled materials, it also has a sensory garden, guest livestock area which usually hosts two lambs during the summer months, a chicken coop, wildflower meadow and small woodland area.
Using permaculture methods, including mulching and companion planting, the ethos is very much to reuse and recycle as much as possible.
The allotment produces a huge range of fruit and vegetables which are used in the school canteen and sold to local pubs and restaurants.
As well as many of the school pupils who spend time in the allotment, it has also involved parents, local residents and farmers who have brought a wealth of knowledge and skills.
Some parents have been able to bring expertise such as helping to build a rainwater harvesting system, while others have contributed time and labour or helped with supplies.
Similarly, local farmers have been instrumental from the start and have helped with moving large items, preparing the land for the wildflower meadow or helping with fencing and drainage.
Matt’s commitment to the Reepham project was rewarded with the Royal Horticultural Society’s School Gardening Award in 2018.
High praise from the judges and an influx of enquiries from other schools wanting to set up similar projects prompted him to leave his teaching role and set up the Papillon Project, to spread the word about school allotments and help set them up.
The project started working with three schools near Norwich in September 2019.
The plan then became to take on three further schools every September and January.
"Local farmers are enrichers, as they really help grow the project"
This would enable Matt and his volunteers to commit a full term to work with the school to create an allotment, while also educating and inspiring the wider school community on how to carry it on.
The focus is on sustainability, says Matt.
He works with each school to generate their own group of local people and farmers to support the project.
Making contact with local farmers is a particularly important part of the early stages of a project.
“These local people are enrichers, as they really help grow the project,” he says.
When lockdown was announced, Matt says he was initially alarmed but soon realised there was more need for outdoor education opportunities than ever.
“We ploughed on with the allotments and continued to grow things for the schools,” he says.
“We were very conscious that for schools to see them as the amazing learning opportunities they are, we needed to keep them maintained and ready for the return to school.
They are all looking really awesome now.” Matt continued working with the children of key workers and some vulnerable children who attended school throughout lockdown, with strict safety measures in place.
And now schools are open again to all pupils, he is confident they will be useful educational resources.
New schools continue to sign up and express an interest in working with Matt, and he and his team took on three new schools this month, most recently in south Norfolk.
Beyond that, and Matt also has a wider project, The Butterfly Effect, for schools who perhaps already have an allotment and want lower level support or to network with other schools.
Beef and arable farmer Jeremy Buxton, from Booton, Reepham, has been involved with the project at Reepham High School for several years and has now taken on a voluntary role as farming liaison for the charity.
His involvement at Reepham includes providing muck and chicken feed and donating items such as pallets which have been upcycled.
He will now be encouraging other farmers to take a similar interest.
Jeremy says: “I believe in it so much and I am so passionate about it.
“I have seen what a difference it has made to the school and community at Reepham.
It is a real feather in the school’s cap to have that resource.
“Matt is an absolute inspiration for the children, school and parents.
“As well as the feel-good factor of being involved, the great thing about the Papillon Project is that they are putting children in touch with food and food production and they are our future customers.
“We want our customers to understand what good food is and how it is produced and to encourage them to buy locally.
There are so many positive messages from it.
“Obviously as farmers we are extremely busy, but I am happy to give some time every now and then because it is such an important project.” Other farmers involved at the original project include Tim Moor, also from Booton, whose daughter had been a Reepham High School pupil.
He helped with moving containers with a telehandler, donated a bus for use as an outdoor classroom and did the cultivations for the wildflower meadow.
Tim says: “The biggest eye-opener for me was at the project’s open evening when a young boy said he never realised that chips came from potatoes and that they grew in the ground.
“Until he got involved with the project he did not know where potatoes came from and I realised what an important job Matt is doing.” Tim was so enthused by his involvement at Reepham that he has since been working on a newer project at Thorpe St Andrew School, Norwich, where he has cleared an area of wasteland so the Papillon Project could start creating a new school allotment.
The success of the project’s work at City Academy Norwich led to the head teacher inviting Matt and team to use the school site as a base.
They have use of outbuildings and can host courses and networking events once allowed under Covid-19 restrictions.
Matt also plans to use the school’s allotment as a showcase to highlight to other schools what can be achieved.
Matt says: “There was nothing at City Academy in January this year and it is now a fully functioning allotment.
“All our projects are success stories, but City Academy is a particularly wonderful story.” In May, the Papillon Project gained registered charitable status and Matt was delighted that Sir Nicholas Bacon, a Norfolk landowner and president of the Royal Horticultural Society, agreed to become its first patron.
“Charity status is far more than just a bit of paper, it is a massive victory in what we are trying to achieve,” says Matt.
“It has been a huge confidence boost but brings very big responsibility with it.” Together with his committed group of volunteers, Matt is confident the project will continue to flourish in its 10 schools and beyond and hopes that more farmers will want to get on board too.
Unapologetically proud of the industry, and focusing on the people who make agriculture tick, Farming: The Backbone of Britain is a feel-good editorial campaign to shine a light on farming communities.
Click the button below to visit the hub.