In a bid to connect children with agriculture, Tom’s Farm puts education and therapy at the heart of its ethos. Emily Ashworth speaks to manager Josh Farrell about the farm’s work.
It is perhaps strange to think that just half-an-hour away from London’s iconic Oxford Street is Tom’s Farm, an agricultural haven for children from urban backgrounds.
The farm is part of the Nightingale Community Academy, a school for boys aged between five and 19 who have an education care and health plan.
It was originally set up as a therapeutic resource for the pupils. The farm’s manager Josh Farrell, who runs the 3-acre site, is helping to educate children about food and farming and ‘that whole paddock to plate learning’.
Josh, 26, who grew up in Colchester, Essex, says: “I was really lucky to grow up farming and taking part in countryside activities, such as shooting, fishing and riding.
“When this job came up it seemed like a really good opportunity to go to the city and share my experiences with young people and show them there is this whole other world they don’t know about.
“I wanted to break down some walls and barriers. Sometimes taking city children to a big working farm where there is stock and lots going on can be quite intense as a first experience.”
Tom’s Farm works towards enriching young people’s lives, allowing them to have a positive and practical experience on-farm, but it was borne from great tragedy.
Established 12 years ago, it was a response to gang and knife crime, Josh says.
Tom ap Rhys Pryce was stabbed and killed in 2006, aged just 31, and his fiance and parents set up a trust in his memory, the Tom ap Rhys Pryce Memorial Trust, with a vision to help young, disadvantaged people realise their potential.
Josh says: “It was started to tackle these issues in cities. One of the students who was involved in the incident attended Nightingale Academy and was diagnosed with social, emotional and mental health needs.
“Tom’s parents wanted something positive to come out of an awful situation, and they helped to raise money to build a therapy farm as a way to teach care and empathy by looking after the environment.
“The journey [the children] go on is quite incredible. They come from an education system which failed them and most have been to multiple schools before they come here.”
The children can experience farm life through various activities, and Josh stresses it is a proper working farm where they can see, for example, lambs being reared and then taken to the abattoir.
It is essentially, he says, a mini agricultural college.
They run about 600 animals now, including Border Leicester, Southdown and Derbyshire Gritstone sheep, Oxford Sandy Black pigs, Bagot and Golden Guernsey goats and chickens.
But for Josh, farming in the city alongside teaching the children presented new challenges for him too when he began at Nightingale four years ago.
He says: “I have always known I wanted to farm and work with animals. I went down the animal management route and always farmed on the side with my dad, but it felt second nature to come here and pass this info on to the kids.
“City farming is completely different; it is a whole new skill to learn. In terms of health and safety, biosecurity, pasture and grass management, you have to be on it. The first few months were a bit of a blur really.
“We’re half-an-hour from Oxford Street, so it took some getting used to driving the livestock trailer down the different roads in London traffic.
“But the farm takes some of the children on this complete journey and they’re different people after a year. It’s such a privilege.”
Education farms are only becoming more popular, says Josh, and even he could not quite believe the lack of knowledge in children of school age.
He says: “It’s a new talking point – teaching kids about where their food comes from. I didn’t understand the misinformation out there until I came here.
“On day two or three we were having a conversation about dairy farming and one of the kids could not believe that chocolate milk didn’t come from a brown cow.
“I wanted to do something different while using my farming skills and background which is why this felt right.
“There’s a lot of city farms out there. It’s an interesting career to take up.”
The farm works alongside Chefs in Schools, an organisation which aims to completely transform school food and food education, partly by retraining school cooks, but also by allowing children to get hands-on in the kitchen.
This has even seen school children cooking over firepits in the school playground and butchering whole chickens.
Alongside Josh and the team, plus chef James Thompson, pupils at Nightingale rear meat and grow vegetables which end up in the school kitchen.
Josh says: “The most incredible thing is [that] suddenly children realise the impact they are having on the world. They will grow a vegetable crop for six weeks and ask how many are we going to harvest?
“But there are more than 100 people to feed, so we will take them all. Those weeks of hard work were going to be used for one lunch.
“When they look at a pig, they realise it has taken nine months to rear, but it will be used for two school lunches.”
It has certainly grown since its humble beginnings with 20 animals, and now has 14 different sites spread across the surrey hills and London.
When Josh joined, he wanted to ‘turn it into a working farm’ and the team now focuses on producing top quality pedigree stock the children can show at country shows.
He says: “It allows us to sell our animals for a premium and [for] this project to be sustainable, which is massive at the minute.
“We have all seen through Brexit that a lot is changing, including how farms are funded. They have to be more financially stable.
“No matter the size of the farm, they have to be more sustainable.
“It is about choosing the right animals for us and we keep a lot of rare and native breeds as they are slightly more sustainable to keep.”
But for Josh, farming is almost a magical educational tool, allowing children to have cross-curricular learning through what they do on-site, while also giving pupils access to a hands-on learning environment.
He says: “When you look at arable farming, the mathematics and the science within elements of it is just incredible. It is amazing how much they can learn by helping me with the feed order or looking at accounts.
“For those who are really enjoying it, we can put them in a working environment. We are not just trimming a few sheep; they could be lambing 100 sheep.
“Most schools have a career board up, but ‘farmer’ wouldn’t be on there.”
Josh is wholeheartedly invested in what he does and he plays a huge role in changing his students’ lives through Tom’s Farm.
He says: “When I started, I had a student who didn’t particularly like the farm to start with and, when he moved up to key stage four, he decided to take it as an option. I didn’t know how we were going to get him the qualification.
“One day it clicked into place and he’s moved his way up. He us now our first farm apprentice. I can guarantee this was a child who would never have ended up in agriculture.
“If you look at their attendance in previous schools, they were going in 20 per cent of the year. Now, we have learners who love it so much they are volunteering at the weekends.”