Coming from a rural background, I have always enjoyed learning about the countryside and the role that agriculture plays in shaping our landscape; however, whilst farmers have always been integral as the stewards of our countryside, feeding the ever-growing population, the media seems to increasingly blame farmers for their role in the climate crisis.
Teaching about where food comes from requires great sensitivity and it is so important that students are encouraged to form a balanced view of what is happening, and as good teachers we should be providing them with the opportunity to ask the questions for themselves, identifying their role in the bigger picture.
Food production is considered in several examination specifications and is something that we as teachers must ensure that we approach from the right angle.
It is all too easy to get blinkered by the media and feel overwhelmed that our individual actions are not enough; however, with the opportunity to get back to grass roots, literally, students start to see what is happening in a completely different light, respecting the work that our farmers do to get food on our plates, and celebrating their role as the custodians of our agricultural landscape, with the responsibility to ensure that future generations are fed and, increasingly, that habitats are restored and conserved and managed appropriately.
Sustainability is at the heart of so much decision-making today, which is why it is important that students start with the everyday basic question: where does their food actually come from?
At Pipers Corner School, we are no strangers to the beauty of the countryside. Nestled in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on grounds extending to 96 acres, the school has an abundance of wildlife on its doorstep, with neighbouring arable and pastoral farms, as well as managed woodland, close at hand.
We have an active environmental group, HOPE (Helping Others Protect the Environment) which is overseen by our very own environmentalist in residence. The group is passionate about environmental issues and have been working hard on ensuring the school moves towards greater environmental sustainability.
Time in our wildflower meadow, or forest classroom is something the students really enjoy, immersing themselves in what nature can offer. For me, as a teacher of geography, the opportunities for fieldwork within the school grounds are never more than a few steps away.
We have, over the years, forged links with local farmers, on one occasion visiting a local dairy farm where the students were treated to their ice cream at the end! Nevertheless, the more recent opportunities to broaden our connections to food, farming and the environment through LEAF has provided the students so much in terms of learning opportunities.
Experiential learning affords students opportunities that they simply cannot access in the classroom, despite all the wonders of modern technology. We have been so fortunate to reach the finals weekend of the LEAF Food, Farming and Environment competition on both occasions that we have entered, and we do hope that we will continue to enter in future years.
This year’s semi-final round involved a trip to a local farm where we took our Year 9 students to gather information to make a video on the importance of sustainability in agriculture. The trip was a real eye-opener for many who had never really stopped to think about the multi-faceted nature of farming and just how hard farmers have to work.
As a result of the students’ success, we were delighted to reach the finals weekend once again, where three Year 11 students took part in what proved to be an amazing experience for all. Pitched at just the right level, students were able to enjoy a hands-on weekend, experiencing tractor driving, milking cows, forest management, sheep weighing, soil analysis and many other activities.
The highlight was the opportunity for students to speak to the farmers and learn from them about their experiences, and the challenges they face now and are expected to face in the future. The question for the weekend ‘Can UK farming be net zero by 2050?’ provided a clear thread that weaved through all the activities and learning opportunities and, by having this question in mind, students were able to think critically about the evidence needed to respond to this in their final presentation.
Our students certainly felt they had changed their minds as a result of the opportunity the weekend provided, with them being able to develop a really good line of argument in favour of the question.
They were surprised but enlightened with their findings, realising that a sustainable future in UK farming is very much determined by the consumer and once there is a mind-shift, with individuals realising more about where their food comes from, then UK farming can certainly reach this goal. They unanimously agreed that everyone should have such an opportunity to delve deeper into where their food comes from.
Back at school, the students have enjoyed sharing their experiences with their classmates and we have plans for developing further links with farmers through LEAF at all Key Stages. As one student put it: “We can bury our heads in the soil, but nothing will grow, or we could plant the seeds of hope which may well lead to a more sustainable future.”
With organisations such as LEAF being there to support teachers to plant those ‘seeds’, we hope that our young people and future generations will grow to be more environmentally minded citizens, taking the time to respect the work of our farmers.