Farmer Tom Martin is founder of the internationally successful Farmer Time project; an initiative which helps children to learn about food, farming and the environment. Using video calling – through a phone or computer – the project beams farmers into classrooms from their farms up and down the country, bringing the countryside, and many school subjects, to life. And it’s proven to be a fantastic tool; sparking engagement, curiosity and fun.
“Children are the consumers, workforce and politicians of the future,” says Tom. “We want to give them well-rounded, fun educational experiences that teach them about food, farming and rural life – and why it is so important. “We want them to know there are opportunities for them, that it’s a place they can forge a career.”
Children are the consumers, workforce and politicians of the future.
Now in its sixth year, in partnership with charity organisation LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), the project has directly reached 30,792 children, aged four to 18 years old, in the UK alone – achieving more than 53,596 hours of learning.
“Every pairing is different, and flexible to the needs of the class and the farmer – only limited by the imagination of the participants,” says Tom. And it’s creating a ripple effect. “Conversations the children and teachers have take the benefits beyond the classroom – by engaging in a fun way they want to talk about it.”
Internationally, its reached a further 28,219 children across five countries including Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland – with South Africa joining the initiative in early 2022.
So how did it begin? From a farming family, agriculture was always in Tom’s blood, he worked in different industries before returning to the farm seven years ago, including 10 years in the film sector. After winning funding from the East of England Agricultural Society in 2017 to attend the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth’s conference in Singapore, Tom got thinking about how video could be used to connect young people with agriculture in an impactful way.
He asked on social media if there were any teachers or schools that would like to do a video call every couple of weeks from the classroom to the farm, and was overwhelmed with the response. “As a nation we’ve never been more interested in food and farming; it clearly satisfied a need and made me realise that there was a huge opportunity with this.”
He trialled the concept with teacher Olivia Mellor at an urban school in a different part of the country. “I wanted to speak to children that would have the least experience of the countryside, and where the difference in our locations would give us real-time comparisons like the weather,” he says. This then led to the project’s scale-up; in 2018 Tom approached LEAF for a collaborative and enabling partnership.
Tabitha Salisbury, education co-ordinator for LEAF, has been working as part of the Farmer Time team for the past two-and-a-half years. “Tom’s project had incredible potential and was really in demand,” she says. “LEAF joined to help bring the educational and co-ordination resources that were needed to get it into more schools, as well as secure sponsorship to help fund it and build awareness.”
Initially called Facetime a Farmer, the project renamed to Farmer Time in 2020. “The paired teacher and farmer talk in advance about what the children are learning (in school),” explains Tabitha. “Then they’ll discuss how to link that into what’s happening on farm and plan some pre and post session tasks to enhance the learning experience.”
Farmer Time sessions typically last for around 20 minutes including questions– the aim is to make it as fun and interactive as possible to bridge the urban-rural divide. Some children will be seeing a dairy cow for the first time and learning where milk comes from, while others engage in deeper conversations around social concerns like climate change and careers in agriculture.
“We purposely pair farmers and schools from different and contrasting locations,” says Tabitha. “This encourages children to get outdoors – and on the next Farmer Time call they’re keen to talk about what they’ve seen and compare it to their previous one.”
Participating farmers are also invited to join the Twitter group. “It’s a great space for them to share their experiences – what topics they’re learning about and how they’re linking it up on farm,” says Tabitha. “It’s a really positive place with lots of exchanging of ideas.”
Just 20 minutes outside of the affluent bustle of Brighton, Olivia’s school is full of bright children with tonnes of potential “The area has a level of deprivation,” explains Olivia. “The socioeconomics mean that, despite being close to the countryside and coast, most children have limited experience of the outdoors and how it links to the food on their plate.”
Understanding the benefits of being in nature, Olivia was keen to seek out fun and interactive ways to bring the Great British outdoors into the class. “I saw Tom’s Facebook post and responded – it was exactly what I was looking for.”
What it’s really about is giving children well-rounded experiences that allow them to grow and make informed choices.
Now in their sixth year as a pairing, Olivia and Tom have brought the countryside to life for 180 children aged 10 to 11, and recently seven to eight year olds. “Every child sees a full cycle of the farm with calls throughout the school year,” she explains.
“When we call Tom he’ll be somewhere on the farm where he can demonstrate what we’ve talked about in class – from the top of his muck heap to in his combine harvester.”
The children really look forward to Farmer Time. “They particularly like the sessions that include fauna and flora – and Tom’s dog. “They also really enjoy the follow up tasks: Tom sent us some beans and cereal seeds to grow – it was great for the children to see and touch what he grows and link it to food that they eat.”
Over the years Olivia has learnt what makes a valuable lesson. “Regular calls make it impactful,” she says. “It has allowed the children and Tom to build a rapport which is really important, especially with the less confident children.”
Looking at vocabulary has also been beneficial; Olivia writes words on the board before and during the call to help the children understand farming language.
And real-life context helps children understand the numbers. “Size and numbers are two things that need relevant context,” she says. “Tell children how many acres the biggest field on a farm is and they’ll look blank because they don’t have a visual reference – tell them what that is in football pitches and you’ll get their attention.” For Olivia there are a host of reasons why Farmer Time is important.
And for Tom there have been many highs, including Top Trumps with the farm’s sheep when the class were learning about genetics, and changing children’s attitudes towards what – for some – is the most dreaded of subjects; mathematics. Most heartening is seeing them develop confidence and curiosity. “The advantage of an ongoing relationship is that children will feel that they can ask any question, they see you as a trustworthy source of information,” he says. “There are always hands still up at the end of the call – and the farmers get just as much out of it as the children, it’s so rewarding.”
But what he is most proud of is that Farmer Time has given children a truer grasp of what it is to be a British farmer. “If in the days, months or years to come they hear something like ‘British farmers don’t care about animal welfare and they douse the countryside in chemicals’, they’ll think critically because they have a reference point,” he says.
They know an actual farmer and interacted with them through sun, wind, rain, snow and different haircuts – they’ve lived alongside them for a time.
“They’ll think ‘hang on, I know a farmer and I know they don’t do that’ or ‘it doesn’t sound like something they would do’. They know an actual farmer and interacted with them through sun, wind, rain, snow and different haircuts – they’ve lived alongside them for a time. “So we need more farmers to reach more children – we are also now signing up agronomists. I’d like to reach 100,000 children in the next five years.”
And Farmer Time is changing lives. “I’m not often lost for words but at an Association of Science Educators conference in Reading a couple of years ago, I was told by a senior member that Farmer Time will have changed many children’s lives. It really brought the impact of the project home.”