Firstly, thank you for wanting to offer the public a window into the farming world and for being willing to provide the chance for youngsters to be inspired by agriculture.
Secondly, are you mad?
Educational visits are the primary reason I opened my smallholding. Educating others, getting children outside and encouraging new blood to join the industry were all triggers for me to open Muddy Boots Farm last year. During my teacher training, I was shocked at how little children knew about farming, where their food comes from and how to get a job in the industry, therefore MBF was born as my little way to hopefully make a difference.
Now I know a lot of farmers do not necessarily enter the world of farming for this reason but instead decide to try this venture as a method of diversification, or even just as a one-off, for Open Farm Sunday for instance. But whether your main goal is to be an educational farm or whether it is just something you would like to try, there are a few points to consider first because as soon as you let members of the public, especially children, onto your farm, you enter a whole new world of paperwork, housekeeping and ‘health & safety‘ so I will try and break it down for you into manageable tasks!
Before you open your farm to educational visits you are going to need…
1..Public Liability Insurance – as a farmer you should already have this in place to protect against incidents such as escapee animals. If you are having members of the public on your farm then this is absolutely essential. If you already have a policy in place it is extremely worthwhile checking that your insurer is still happy to cover you if you do offer educational visits and if there is any additional cover that you may need.
2. Risk Assessments – Any activities that take place on the site will benefit from you carrying out a risk assessment prior. I know a lot of people will be scared simply to hear the words ‘Risk Assessment‘ but please do not worry. There are tonnes of online templates that will guide you. Remember it is not just a ticking box exercise for the fun of it, carrying out the assessments will be extremely worthwhile as they can help you highlight any weaknesses on your farm and perhaps avoid a future accident. Just make sure when completing the assessments, to think like someone who has never visited a farm before and to think like a child. My first year of MBF has taught me that the majority of visitors have zero experience of a real farm and I have had two incidents that prove it – 1. a child falling over in stinging nettles and the parents not knowing the dock leaf trick and 2. a child putting its hand inside a pig’s mouth and the child and parents being shocked that pigs bite.
3. Hand Washing Facilities – There is absolutely no way around this, public + livestock = risk. Therefore hand washing facilities are a must and, with my council (Maldon District) at least, they will want running hot water. My council will not accept alcohol gel as a substitute as they do not provide enough protection, there must be warm running water and soap and somewhere for the public to dry their hands. This is because this is thought to be the only way to prevent E.Coli, which can be caught from petting livestock. Signage and training of staff is vitally important for this also. I tend to get the children visiting to wear gloves when working on the farm too just to be doubly sure, they will wash their hands as well but the gloves protect from missed dirt under nails etc.
4. Toilets – The toilets you provide on your farm do not need to be anything fancy, many of the farms I have visited have had composting toilets or macerator toilets as they are usually based far away from sewage networks. Remember if you are inviting members of the public on site it is likely that they will expect baby changing facilities and potentially disabled toilet facilities too so if you are building something specific try and cater for all needs where possible.
5. A Clean & Tidy Farm – This for me, is the hardest part of having my farm open to the public. Most farms will have an element of mess, perhaps you’ve just dagged all your sheep and there’s a pile of sh*tty wool, or it is cleaning out day for your chicken coops and there is a certain whiff in the air. Either way, I have never walked onto a working farm and not seen something a little gross or out of place. Well when you have members of public on site, they will expect everything to be pristine 100% of the time and it is your duty to keep it as near to that as you can realistically manage. Not just from an aesthetic point of view but also for safety and hygiene reasons. I think the best thing to do, if you have the space (unfortunately I do not), is to have public friendly areas where everything is kept neat and tidy and staff only areas where all the dirty, real work takes place and where you can store potentially dangerous items such as tools and heavy machinery.
6. To Prepare Yourself for Criticism – Ok, I think this may actually be the hardest thing about having my farm open to the public. And this is something I had only semi-prepared myself for before starting MBF. Towards the end of last year on a local social media group someone started a post about my animals and cursing the fact that I am a working farm, I don’t want to dwell on this time as it was bl**dy awful but when you have worked so hard at something and do all you can to give your animals a happy life something like this can really get to you. And unfortunately, opening your farm to the public means you are also opening yourself up to comments like this. I have also had a woman preaching at me from the other side of the fence about her non-meat eating values, who then proceeded to harass me until I threatened to call the police. While I do try to educate my visitors to back British farming, eat ethically sourced meat and to ensure animal welfare comes above anything else, some people will stick to the message that farmers are rapists and murderers and there is no changing their minds. There are also the snide comments or townies who know better that you have to deal with, but I think once you have put up with most things farming throws at you, those kinds of comments are taken on the chin. Just try to stick to your values and as long as you know that what you are doing is worthwhile then you will be in a good position to deal with this negativity.
7. To Prepare Yourself for Praise – Let’s not be solely negative, with the bad comes the good and a huge bonus of having the public seeing what you are up to, is the fact that many will be amazed at what a day in the life of a farmer entails. If you can rescue animals, help preserve rare breeds or simply provide a happy home for the animals on your farm, the large majority of people will see what good you are doing. And there is nothing better after a hard day slogging away, than to hear someone praising the work you do! Shortly after the hate campaign publicised about my farm, mentioned above, I received a flood of positive comments from other residents stating how my farm was a benefit to the local area and how their children love to visit. It really is swings and roundabouts, it is just a case of trying to remember the good over the bad. And with a wave of online reviewers and keyboard warriors around, this is a very important coping strategy.
8. Parking – Back to the practical side of opening up your farm. The likelihood is your farm is pretty rural, which means that most people will be driving to you and this means you are going to need somewhere for them to park. Most farms will have an area large enough to fufil the needs of a car park if you are only holding a few events throughout the year. Remember though if you are expecting visitors to park on grass, after a short amount of time with a little British rain that paddock will soon become a quagmire. Where possible, parking on hardstanding is ideal but if this isn’t something you are able to offer, maybe keep to small groups at a time with only a few events a year or only offer visits seasonally.
9. Signage – My advice is to have twice the signage you think you need. Remember you know your farm inside out and you have probably worked with livestock/machinery for many years however most of your visitors may have never even met a sheep before or stepped foot on a farm before and a lot of them will be vulnerable children. You will need directional signage, warning signs, health and safety signs and informative signs. If you do not want to invest heavily in signage, an A4 printer and a laminator can work just as well. And the most important sign that I would recommend… ‘PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE!’
10. Shelter – No matter how many times I chant the mantra ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing‘ there will always be a child that arrives at the farm in shorts and sandals in mid-January. If it is pouring down with rain, your visitors’ experience is going to be vastly improved if you provide somewhere that they can escape from it. Remember it is not just bad weather that can be unpleasant, on a boiling hot day visitors will benefit from shade too and it is also a matter of keeping your visitors safe. It does not need to be anything costly – a barn, polytunnel, gazebo, old field shelter – anything goes! And to make sure they are extra comfortable, provide seating inside too – if you want to create the real farm experience a hay bale will do!
11. Staff – On busy days, if you are offering activities for large groups or holding sessions where adults can leave their children, you are going to need extra staff on site. You are trying to keep your visitors attention, you are trying to also manage a farm and you are trying to run a business and unfortunately this is going to take more than one pair of hands. No matter how small the group, if one child leaves to go to the toilet or an animal falls down sick you cannot leave the rest of the group to just ‘get on with it‘, so plan ahead for these eventualities. If you are holding sessions for schools then this should not be such an issue as they will be obliged to provide enough adults for the correct child:adult ratios. This is however where your risk assessments should highlight times when extra staff members are needed.
12. Training/Certification – In this post my points are not in order but if they were this would be at the top! I spent almost a year before my farm opened training to be ready for children and members of the public to enter my farm. I am slightly more qualified because the children are left in my care and I feed them but even if parents/teachers are always going to be with the children and you do not need to worry about food hygiene there are some courses you should consider, including Countryside Educational Visit Accreditation Scheme (CEVAS), Paedatric First Aid, Food Hygiene Certificate and DBS Check.
13. Experience of Working with Children – Before you invite children to your farm it will be beyond beneficial to have some experience. If you’re a parent, Aunt/Uncle, Godparent etc. you may think you have this one in the bag! But remember working with children and educating children is very different to having relatives over. If you are able to assist with a local cubs/brownies club or spend a few days volunteering at a local school or children’s charity, this will give you the experience and know-how for when children come to your farm. Don’t worry people will not think you’re strange for asking to help out, if you explain what it is for and come with your DBS check you should be welcomed with open arms! Before my farm opened I volunteered with a local nursery, primary school and a local wildlife trust in their educational department and managed to work with children aged 1-12, which was extremely beneficial.
14. Think About the ‘Appropriateness’ of the Animals on Your Farm for Children – horned creatures, large animals, frisky livestock or flighty beasts should all be avoided around children (unless they are being viewed from behind a fence). If there are instances when you want the children to get close to any of the livestock on your farm then you are going to need to think about how safe it is for them, this will come up in your Risk Assessments. As a rule, the animals that children on my farm can get to are hornless, friendly and small. I keep my rams away from the children and I do not let the children go into the pig pen but they can feed them from the other side of the fence.
15. To Promote Your Farm – unfortunately the phrase ‘build it and they will come‘ does not apply to your farm. You are going to need to let the public know what you have going on and why they should come to you. The first thing, as mentioned above, is to get your signage in place so that anyone who passes your farm knows where you are and the name of your business. The next thing you are going to need, in this day and age, is to promote your farm with an online presence – this can be a website, listing on an online business directory such as Yell or a social media page. If you have a small marketing budget, do not fear, social media pages are free and you can even create a website on a hosting site such as WordPress for free. And if it is computer skills that you lack, most sites will have step by step guides, or you could ask a web designer to help you out with a simple landing page, you may be surprised at how low cost this option can be. Do not leave this until the last minute however, you should be establishing your business online long before you open to the public, this way you can create a buzz about your launch which may lead to more visitors and even some media attention.
Now I know it may seem a lot of hard work and I am not going to lie it can be very stressful, but opening your farm to the public for educational sessions can be extremely rewarding and can be a great way to diversify and earn some extra money from your farm (not just from entry fees but also of advertisement of your produce). If it is something that takes your interest and seems a possibility at your farm or smallholding please do consider, as it is a great way to open up the world of farming that otherwise would be inaccessible to those not living it!