Teaching urban children about the important role farming plays in society is a driving passion for Steven Allday.
Lauren Dean finds out more.
When considering a move from his job as a deputy head teacher, Steven Allday had a lightbulb moment to help inner-city youngsters engage with food and farming.
Although not brought up on a farm, a push from family and friends encouraged him to wave goodbye to his desk job and don his wellies in search of a new adventure which could go hand-in-hand with his four-hectare (10-acre) smallholding.
The result was Allday’s Farm, which provides children access to farm animals and education about the industry.
Six months on from leaving his job and, with his livestock in tow at a school in Seaforth, Merseyside, it is immediately clear the connection Steven is able to make with the children and why the information he provides is so valuable in bridging the urban and rural divide.
Speaking to the young reception students standing around a pen of two Kune Kune pigs, one young boy jumps up with excitement and says: “Sausages. They come from shops.”
Steven is diplomatic. “Yes, kind of,” he responds. “But sausages come from a pig, just like this one here. We keep pigs to grow them for meat.”
The latest British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) survey showed six per cent of 14-16 year-olds think dairy cows produce eggs, while one sixth of five to seven-year-olds think bacon is the produce of cows, sheep or chickens.
Another 18 per cent of four to eight-year-olds questioned by Cadbury thought milk came straight from the fridge or supermarket.
Playing on his teacher expertise with more than 20 years’ experience, Allday’s Farm, based at Preston, Lancashire, is able to offer a curriculum based learning package to schools to spread the message of the farm-to-fork journey as well as other countryside skills such as behaviour around livestock and old craftsman traditions.
It is not the usual farm experience, Steven says, but one where the children are able to interact with the animals from the four walls of the school playground.
Steven adds: “We have had most of the animals for a good while and I remember about four years ago an ex-colleague said to me, ’You should really think about doing something with your animals’.
“I said, ’No I love teaching; I love doing all of this’. But the more I thought about it the more I became interested.
“I was a deputy head, working lots of hours and there was an opportunity to make a change so I took it. I took some advice from my neighbour who had a business very much like this and it has been really good to do something actually with the animals, and work with the children.”
The countryside was a central part of Steven’s childhood growing up in the north east of England, and he was immersed into a life with livestock and small animals after marrying wife Samantha, who introduced him to sheep, pigs, goats, horses and chickens.
“One of the things I wanted to do was give children an understanding of the countryside and get them to think outwards,” Steven says.
“I have worked mainly in inner-city schools, including the east end of London, Dagenham and Seaforth and lots of the children have never been to a farm or even seen any farm animals.”
Sessions already include farm-to-fork, adaptation and evolution and Steven is keen to look at rural industry techniques that would otherwise die out, including basket making and hedge laying.
Another key area is helping children learn where their food comes from and how it is grown and brought to market.
“It is all about making science relevant to children and giving them an opportunity to grab, hold, touch, feel, understand and smell. That is much better than you can ever get from a screen,” Steven says.
“It is about making them aware that sausages are something to do with a pig, that milk you can get from a sheep and a goat as well as a cow, and it is about getting them to ask questions.”
At home, Steven’s four-year-old son Evan enjoys organising the trailer and often gives orders on what should be done on-farm with the help of the role-play toys inside.
Steven has a further two helpers for school events and activities, Stuart Cockbain and Heather Prescott, who help manage the farms two pygmy goats, one Texel cross and four Suffolk cross ewes, three Zwartbles, two Kune Kune pigs and Serema hens alongside miniature horses, ferrets, lops and crested guinea pigs.
“I am not here to make tonnes of money,” says Steven, who is passionate about all children being able to access the same quality of experience as others. “I am actually just here to try and provide a service that all children in an area can access rather than just one or two in the lucky schools.
“Anything that creates an interest and encourages children to look at their local environment and look at the countryside as a whole, and make them want to use British produce, has got to be of value.
“The children are just interested in everything. They are like little sponges. And that is one of the most amazing things, it is really easy to get some things in their heads.”
A typical day consists of different year groups spending about 30-45 minutes with Steven and the animals with hands-on learning and cue cards, before heading back to the classroom.
The next steps for Allday’s Farm is to get in touch with a supermarket chain in the hope of a sponsorship deal to reduce costs for both Steven and the schools. He says: “That is the big plan but we shall see.”
Steven Ward, early years foundation stage manager and teacher of a reception class at Rimrose Hope Primary School, Seaforth, says the school considers it very important for the children to understand the importance of healthy eating from an early age.
He says: “Young children often think foods such as fruit, vegetables and meat all magically appear in a supermarket rather than from a farm, so we work on a regular basis to give the children an insight into the origins of the food we eat and how we need to eat a balanced diet.
“The opportunity that Allday’s Farm gave also enhanced our topic work on harvest time in which we have been handling and tasting the harvest crop, watching video clips and reading news stories of farmers in action and learning songs about harvest.”
Mr Ward said the farm visit had a real ‘wow’ factor and the joy and engagement shown by the children made it one of his best days yet as a teacher.
“The parents were also delighted by the visit and many of them wanted to stay and be a part of the experience,” he adds. “The children wanted to know where the animals had gone when they returned to school the next day and were amazed that all the poo had disappeared.”
Often farmers are wary about contacting schools and being caught up in a long process of rejections, but Steven says the key to success is through pestering. He says: “I contact a lot of schools through email and I just keep pestering – I will go to them again after half term and think about next year and what they are doing.”
Keeping the attention span for youngsters is a huge part of the initial challenge. Steven says the best way to maintain interaction is through 30-minute bursts with small groups before allowing the children to go off and expand their learning in the classroom.
“This model of do a bit, then them go away and come back and do a bit more, is really good because you can see what they have already learnt or what you might need to go back to. It gives them something to hang their learning on.”
For children, everything comes back to poo, says Steven. And if they cling on to it and will learn from that, use it. “They like laughing at poo,” he says. “Poo is entertaining and interesting and when you are talking about life cycles and what living things do, it is perfect.”