After a week off (due to preparing for lambing), I’m back with a brand new #FollowAFarmer interview. This week I’m discovering the challenges of balancing a working farm and an educational tourist attraction with fellow previous Tesco Future Farmer, Sophie Green.
JB: What’s your farming background?
SG: I’m not from a farming background – I originally qualified as a teacher and got into farming when I accepted a job as Learning Officer at Stockley Farm Park back in 2012.
J: How did the job at Stockley come about? Not many people go from teaching to farming!
S: You’d be surprised! More and more people are coming into agriculture from other industries, which seems to be creating a more dynamic approach to farming; much-needed in the current political climate. Personally, I’ve always loved being outdoors and as a qualified horse riding instructor, I’m well used to shoveling muck & braving all weathers.
I’ve always championed learning outside of the classroom & the opportunity to inspire children to explore & learn out in the countryside is very liberating. Every good teacher knows that to enable your students to engage in high quality learning experiences, you have to continually develop your own knowledge & experiences; as i have discovered more about farming & the agricultural industry as a whole I have become completely engrossed!
After three years of working in an inner city school in Manchester I was craving the opportunity to get back out into the countryside & to take the kids with me! When I saw the job at Stockley advertised in the local paper, I couldn’t resist! I am happy to say that pupils from my old school now come to the farm to take part in educational visits. I love seeing them relax, enjoy & explore – seeing them interact with the animals & get ‘hands on’ in a working farm environment always brings a smile to my,and their, face.
J: How much of a transition was it going in to Stockley? Did you have any prior farming knowledge and how much have you had to learn along the way?
S: The past 4 years have certainly been an education! I had basic animal husbandry knowledge, but I’ve had to do my research & have thrown myself into every aspect of farm life in order to gain a real understanding of what it is to be a modern-day farmer. I don’t believe in doing things by halves & know that you need a strong subject knowledge in order to be an effective teacher.
Thankfully John (farm owner), our agronomist, vets, contractors etc have all been very patient with me & put up with my continual questions! The past 18 months have been particularly full-on in terms of learning about the industry as a whole, as I gained a place on the Tesco Future Farmers Foundation 2015 & won a scholarship to attend the Oxford Farming Conference 2017. Both of these opportunities have really opened my eyes to the global farming industry and have enabled me to share its story with all of our visitors.
J: Going back to Stockley. Could you give the readers a little intro in to the business?
S: Stockley is a 750 acre mixed organic dairy and arable farm, which has diversified to incorporate an open farm visitor attraction. It is on the Arley Hall Estate in Cheshire and is tenanted by the Walton family, who set up the attraction 30 years ago. The business has a focus upon educating visitors about British Farming by providing them with ‘hands on’ interactive activities that allow them to get a real sense of life on a working farm. The open farm attracts 75,000 visitors per year, 25,000 of which are students attending educational visits. We take pride in showcasing what we do and why we do it; providing consumers with the opportunity to ask questions & gain a better understanding of where their food comes from. Our approach has resulted in numerous awards, including ‘Best Farm Over 500 Acres’ in the Cheshire Farms Competition 2015 and most recently ‘Best in Education’ at the National Farm Attractions Network Awards 2017. To gain recognition for both our farming practices & our ability to showcase them is wonderful!
J: We’re all forever banging on about how important it is that we showcase what we do and inform or educate the public on food and farming, and that’s exactly what you’re doing day in, day out. How important a role do you think places like Stockley play in bringing the farmer and the consumer closer together?
S: I think they are vital! Like yourself, I hear so many farmers saying that they want to engage with consumers, but the thought of opening their farm up to the public is very daunting. Initiatives such as Open Farm Sunday are doing a fantastic job of supporting farmers who want to give it go & I fully advocate getting involved! Health and safety & insurance costs are what most farmers fear, but there is plenty of support and advice from the OFS team, plus Access to Farms & the National Farm Attractions Network. Consumers are becoming more aware of issues such as food provenance, and environmental issues surrounding farming – there is a thirst for knowledge out there! People like Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty are bringing these issues into the mainstream, so now more than ever, the British farming industry needs to tell its story and show people exactly why it is one of the best in the world!
J: You’ve touched on a couple of issues that farmers face when opening up to the public but what are some of the biggest challenges you face at Stockley?
S: Running a working farm as a visitor attraction can be challenging. However, with a bit of positive thinking, every hurdle can be turned into an opportunity. We do encourage visitors to watch our animals give birth, but we’ve all had an awkward calving or lambing. If things aren’t going quite to plan, we explain the situation and move customers away from the area. However, we do not hide anything; we are open & honest with our visitors & encourage questions about topics that could be considered slightly ‘sticky’. We have talked many a child through the process of birth, using child-friendly language, and often get questions about the process of slaughtering animals & how we feel about it.
It is a highly emotive subject, but we stick to the facts & explain things as simply as possible. This is the most important part of our job; these processes are so often misunderstood & misrepresented through social media channels, so it’s essential that consumers have the opportunity to explore & understand then for themselves. It’s important to note that we try to approach these subjects on a factual basis, without expressing personal opinion, so that our visitors have the opportunity to make up their own minds.
J: The job must come with some real highlights too?
S: Absolutely! The joy of this job is the activities we provide can be accessed by everyone, regardless of age, ability or background. It is very rewarding to see the impact it can have; I’ve witnessed a 90 yr old lady with dementia in tears of joy as she remembered milking dairy cows at home as a young girl, teenagers with learning difficulties begin to grow in confidence & independence as they cared for our animals, & children educating their parents about farming after they’ve been on a school visit! From technical farming debates to the simple pleasure of spending time with the animals, every day is a highlight!
J: You mentioned earlier that 2016 has been such a big year for you, with the OFC and taking part of TFFF where we met. What does 2017 have in story for Sophie Green?
S: 2017 brings lots of hard work, grit & determination! I have been afforded some fantastic opportunities & I am keen to utilise all I have learnt. There are number of exciting ideas that I am hoping to develop within my current role and I am also keen to explore the possibilities of working on a bigger scale. I would love to support the industry on a regional, or potentially national level, with the aim of educating consumers & inspiring more people to get into farming… watch this space!
To learn more about Stockley Farm Park, or to plan your own visit, head over to their website; www.stockleyfarm.co.uk