Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Real life learning on the farm

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Helping children learn about farming is a rewarding part of one farm manager’s job. Judith Tooth meets Matthew Hawthorne.

For farm manager Matthew Hawthorne, hosting public visits is high on the list of priorities.

Helping people – and particularly children – learn about farming is a particular passion on the Euston Estate, near Thetford. Some 500 people attend a farm tour on the estate during the Euston Rural Pastimes event each June.

Young farmers visit at other times. And work with the Countryside Trust education charity give children from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to visit too, says Matthew. Links have also been developed with local primary schools.A particularly close and rewarding relationship has been developed with nearby Barnham CEVC Primary School. Like Matthew, who is chair of governors at the school, where his nine year-old daughter is a pupil, headteacher Amy Arnold understands the value of real life learning and making the curriculum enjoyable.

“Giving children real activities to do makes learning easier to understand,” he says. “Our farm visits are not just sitting on a trailer and riding around. For example, in September and October, they do yield digs on sugar beet: they visit lots of fields and use maths and teamwork to understand why one beet weighs, say, 6kg or 9kg. So they find out the importance of planting date, soil type, weather conditions and other factors in the growth of sugar beet.

Estimate yield

“Then they take things a stage further and estimate the yield from different fields. They get the weighbridge tickets for those fields and we compare the differences from the actual tonnage to their predicted tonnage, so we can calculate more accurately for pupils the following year.

“Two years ago, the children would giggle as they bumped around in the trailer and shout, ‘Poo!’ as they passed by the pigs. Now the strangeness of the farm has gone… the tractor ride is not the high point that it was: it’s what’s in the field that’s important.”

This summer a new event was launched, Countryside Week: six work stations grouped around a central marquee set up in the grounds of Euston Hall with hands-on activities tailored to the school’s various year groups throughout the week.

The work stations covered arable farming, deer management, pheasant rearing, beekeeping, shooting and tracking. The children learned, for example, about cultivating, drilling and combining; how to trap vermin, and why it was necessary, and soldiers from nearby RAF Honington – who regularly use the estate for practice – set up a tracking scenario for them and explained the daily life of a soldier out in the field.

The final day was devoted to learning about livestock on the estate, and the meat produced from it. Estate director, Andrew Blenkiron talked about Red Poll cows; shepherd Chris Reeks, who keeps 500 ewes and sells Euston Estate meat at his shop, La Hogue Farm Shop near Newmarket, talked about sheep, and Chris Fogden, who runs a herd of outdoor pigs on 50ha of the arable land, spoke about his work as a pigman.

Then, while beef, lamb, pork and pheasant were cooked on a barbecue on site, the children were told facts about the animals’ diet, environment and their life span on the estate.

Join-up moment

“It was an obvious join-up moment: the children learnt about the production and then tasted the products. Most of them had tasted chicken and beef before, but not many had had roast pork, and, unsurprisingly, only five out 160 had eaten pheasant. But they tried all of the different meats at the same rate,” said Matthew.

“The school’s weekly sharing assembly was also held at the event, giving parents the opportunity to see and hear what their children had been learning that week at the venue.”

Back on the farm Matthew involved year six pupils in choosing a new tractor, comparing the in-field performance of two demonstration models, weighing them, measuring fuel usage and assessing the operator environment. And most recently they helped choose a new telehandler, learning about how advertising images can influence decisions and how to win business.

“Myself and Amy went to the JCB factory and took photos of the production line to show the children the machine being made. Then I had the telehandler delivered to the school from new so the children could see it first hand. The project attracted a lot of publicity as well as a donation by JCB and G & J Peck Ltd of Ely to the school. Euston Farms matched the donation and bought all the children body warmers for them to wear when they have a trip out.

“We’re not necessarily flying the flag of farming as a career; it’s really to help them understand what’s happening on their doorstep and why. If you take children out to a field of sugar beet and also take a bag of sweets, they make the connection between what is in the field and what is in their life.

“What I want to happen is, when a tractor pulls out and a child is in the car with Mum or Dad, the child explains why the sugar beet trailer is on the road, where it could be going and what sugar beet is used for.”

Alongside school visits  is the running of the farm: 2630ha of predominantly Breckland sands. The rotation includes 520ha of potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions, grown by RG Abrey, and 400ha of maize and rye production for the AD plant on the estate, owned by Strutt and Parker Farms. Sugar beet and cereals complete the arable rotation. Three tenant farmers make up the 4250ha estate total.

Second reservoir

The farm’s second reservoir, dug four years ago, made it possible to grow a much bigger area of vegetables. Even in this year’s drought conditions, the growing season has been completed with the required amount of water to the crops – although the rain was very welcome when it came at the end of the growing season, and meant some fields of sugar beet could be given a boost from the remaining water in the reservoirs.

Management of the 600ha of mixed woodland on the estate involves clear felling, replanting and deer fencing in 1ha blocks, thinning and shelter belt enhancement. Brandon-based GK Peckham is contracted to harvest the timber and deliver it to local sawmills, while the estate runs a firewood business.

“It’s very interesting being involved in woodland management,” says Matthew. “The difference is quite amazing, from the month to month changes with commercial crops, compared to five yearly changes with woodland.”

The estate is in higher-level stewardship, with a lot of pollen and nectar and wild bird seed areas, low input grassland and grass margins around virtually every field. There is also a network of arable margins cultivated annually at varying times of the year to encourage Breckland arable flora and ground nesting birds.

Euston Hall, home to the Dukes of Grafton for more than 350 years, has just had a makeover, the first for 55 years. It is now open again for guided tours of the hall, with opportunities to also view the gardens, pleasure grounds, church and watermill. As well as Rural Pastimes, the Estate also hosts the East Anglian Game and Country Fair every April, the Red Rooster music festival every June and Whitenoise in August, as well as a whole summer of Arab endurance racing.

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