Trying to convey your farming message to the public isn’t always the easiest of tasks. But LEAF Open Farm Sunday is a chance to let your farm shine. Emily Ashworth reports.
Buying British, thinking positively about farming and getting to know those who grow your food isn’t always at the forefront of many people’s minds.
But 13 years ago, LEAF Open Farm Sunday became a true celebration of the industry, as farms up and down the country opened the floodgates and let members of the public on to their farms and in to their homes for the day.
And since its launch, farmers have welcomed more than 2.2 million visitors to their events.
This year, the theme is Get Closer to Farming, which will encourage visitors to look beyond the farm itself.
This might engage people with the generational history of the farm, or ask them to learn more about the environmental schemes these farms participate in, in order to achieve a more sustainable future.
But its success has been proven, with nearly 90 per cent of visitors in 2018 stating that being part of such an experience has changed the way they think about agriculture.
A further 92 per cent of people said they appreciated the work of farmers after seeing it for themselves, which is something the industry can positively build on considering last year, 20 per cent of all visitors claimed they had never stepped foot on a farm.
The idea of thousands of strangers turning up on your doorstep, however, can be daunting, and it was something Robert Wilson was unsure of.
Running 240 Hereford Cattle across 182 hectares (450 acres) at Cowbog Farm, near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, he had worried his business was far too simple for anyone to be interested in visiting.
“We had some reservations,” says Robert.
“We weren’t sure we had enough to offer as we aren’t heavily mechanised so didn’t have a lot of kit to show, and the cattle were outside so the sheds are normally empty in the summer.
“But, like all farmers, we have a fair bit of pride in what we do, including the tidiness of the farm.”
Robert’s runs a diverse business, particularly with his Romany Herd of high health polled Hereford Cattle selling genetics around the UK and overseas, alongside a new enterprise called Fluffy Moos, a LEADER-funded diversification project focused on the pedigree herd and on-farm experiences.
But he wanted to keep the farm’s first Open Farm Sunday event a laid-back one, where visitors could enjoy the farm for what it was and witness first-hand what realistically goes on.
He says: “We thought we would keep it simple and manageable.
“We focused mainly on tractor and trailer rides around the farm, silage baling and wrapping for people to watch, Beirhope Alpacas came down with a team of four for short walks and a meet and greet, and Roxburgh Shooting School came along with some Tomahawk axes for a demonstration.
“Our neighbours at Playfair Farms provided a tractor and driver for the day too.”
In 2018, 26 per cent of farmers who took part in OFS did so for the first time, which was the highest number to date.
And the event exceeded all Robert’s expectations as he welcomed 150 members of the public to Cowbog.
“I think our biggest worries on the day were either no one would come, or too many people would come and if they did, they would come with a predetermined view of agriculture, so no one would find us interesting anyway,” he says.
“But we used a booking system so there was no problem and we found what we considered to be day-to-day mundane tasks on the farm, others found fascinating.
“We’ve all got a great story to tell, from the technical aspects of precision farming to the hefting of ewes on a hillside. The myths that are spread on social media by many, that all farmers are
‘terrorists of the countryside’, are often by those that have never set foot on a farm.
“Things can easily be explained when you’re in a field with a conservation headland, parked up beside an area of wild bird cover buzzing with bees and insects, or when you drive into a field of cows and calves happily munching grass.”
This year, Robert and his family have no reservations about taking part and have become huge advocates for not only what OFS stands for, but for the change it can make to farming’s relationship with the public going forward.
He added that people seem to have a genuine fear of livestock too, and in keeping with this year’s theme, he would like to educate people on animal behaviours, body language and how to act around cattle.
“All those that took part on the day from our team were definitely buzzing by end of it,” says Robert.
“The team provided visitors with a real understanding of what we did and showed it wasn’t the sterile wasteland portrayed by some.
“We had an awful lot of the younger generation attend our day, and we shouldn’t forget these are our future consumers. The agencies employed to promote our industries can only do so much, but we can help too.
“By welcoming visitors, we can make impressions that last a long time, hopefully until these youngsters are in charge of deciding what food are put in the shopping trolley.”