Welsh dairy farmer Abi Reader talks about why it’s vital to engage with the public and how you can do it, including why she gets involved in LEAF Open Farm Sunday.
“If I had a £1 for every time a farmer said to me that we’ve become disconnected with the public, that people don’t understand what we are anymore, I’d have a cow mat stuffed with cash. If we are saying these things, why aren’t we doing something about it? We have a responsibility to support our industry and what we do. We need to stop the misunderstandings, the myths and – in many cases – the untruths.
It’s easy to ask why we need to do this and why we should take part in initiatives that bridge the gap, like LEAF Open Farm Sunday. It’s because there are a lot of people out there who don’t know anything about what we do, the effort we put into producing their food and they don’t understand our story. We can change that and build loyalty.
There are a number of people who can try and tell stories on our behalf, but really the best ones come from us. That’s because they come from the heart and from letting people see a little bit of our world. It’s about being welcoming and creating that good vibe about farming. It’s about positive association.
It doesn’t matter if people leave your farm not fully understanding how you grow your crops or how you milk your cow. What matters is when they are in a supermarket or a restaurant considering what food they are going to buy that they will look for a British or a local logo, because they will remember the good experience when they visited a farm, just like yours, just like mine.
I’m now very happy to open the farm to the public, and we have had a number of school visits and have hosted LEAF Open Farm Sunday several times, but it wasn’t always like that. It’s quite frightening opening gates to people you don’t know and letting them come on your farm. I was really worried the first time that we did LEAF Open Farm Sunday that there was nothing particularly special about our farm. What exactly will people see?
What you need to remember is that the people who come are not farmers; they often live in cities or the suburbs and even seeing big fields and crops growing is a whole new experience for them.
You will always find something to talk about on your farm; talk about things you are proud of and talk from the heart, as people will love your stories. Our old stone barn prompts stories about our family and the history, and between the barn, the calving yard and baby calves, in just a few square metres alone we can fill 20 minutes, and more if we are fielding questions.
Arm yourself with props – smelly silage, cow cake, a loaf of bread or a bag of maltesers – as they instantly give something to talk about, and you shouldn’t be worried about what to say as you are talking about something you know really well. Usually the questions start coming quite quickly which makes it all flow easily.
Here’s a tip though: watch the jargon! Whether you call it cow cake, nuts or rolls, explain yourself. After my first LEAF Open Farm Sunday, I think people went home thinking I gave my cows birthday cake! You can also bring in different elements – a local producer or we’ve had craft stall holders to enrich the day.
I know there’s fear about opening up to the public. It’s not always natural for farmers to put themselves ‘out there’ but I’ve never yet had difficult questions. People are generally positive and interested. The LOFS ticketing service means you can control numbers via online booking – so it could be for as few as 20 people. Whether it’s a small or large event the impact can be huge – you may change the thinking or habits of visitors to positively support our industry. It doesn’t need to be expensive – we and a few volunteers give up our time, and willingly, and our only cost is a portaloo.
After our first LEAF Open Farm Sunday, we got to the end of the day and I wondered if we’d had any impact, if we had made any difference in this world. Six months later I was on a train to London and a woman with two bouncing children at her feet asked if I was the ‘cow lady’. She explained that she’d been to the farm and that they had had such a fantastic time that, from that day on, her kids had always made her buy British food from the supermarket. It was at that point I realised how important LEAF Open Farm Sunday is.
My main message to everyone is please put a little bit of thought into whether LEAF Open Farm Sunday would work on your farm. Try to get your neighbours involved, people to help you, maybe local young farmers or businesses. It’s such a worthwhile cause. I think we should be very proud as an industry and food producers, and I would encourage anyone to give it a go.
LEAF Open Farm Sunday is the farming industry’s annual open day managed by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming). Farmers across the UK open their gates and invite the public onto farms to find out how their food is produced, and all the public goods farmers deliver managing soil and water through to habitats for wildlife. It is free to register an event and farmers can access resources and support to promote and run their event – whether it’s a farm walk for 20 or an open event for 200.”
Resources are available to order from 1 March 2019 for all registered farmers.
For more information about LEAF Open Farm Sunday and to register an event: www.farmsunday.org