How farmers are educating tomorrow’s influ­encers

Make no bones about it, the future of farming and the envi­ron­ment depends on the youth of today – and tomorrow. And for one Cambridgeshire farmer that was a good enough reason to go back to school.

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.

Tom Martin

Tom Martin, farmer and founder of Farmer Time. Chil­dren really like his dog during Farmer Time calls.

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.

Farmer Time has brought the country side to life for almost 60,000 chil­dren in six different coun­tries.


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.

Students can learn about the vast carreer oppor­tu­ni­ties in agri­cul­ture.

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.

Farmer Time sparks curiosity, engage­ment and fun.

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.”

Farmer Time

Up close encoun­ters can be had hundereds of miles away.

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.”

LEAF work in part­ner­ship with the Farmer Time project and are vital in creating pair­ings.

Olivia’s class

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.”

Farmer Tom Martin and teacher Olivia Mellor

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.

Olivia Mellor

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.”

Farmers can video call from different parts of their farm.

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.

Simple video calls are creating shared and real-time expe­ri­ences.

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.

Tom Martin

“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.”

Links for more Infor­ma­tion about Farmer Time project