Fling open the farm gate to bridge divide with consumers

Barely a month goes by without one report or another coming out to remind us of how disconnected we have become as a nation from the food we eat. But happily there are initiatives that are helping the supply chain to bridge that gap with consumers. Produce Business UK looks at one – Open Farm Sunday - and the connections it is making to help support the fresh produce industry in the UK

When farms nationwide fling open their gates on June 7 this year, Open Farm Sunday (OFS) will mark its 10th edition. During its first decade, the initiative has welcomed thousands of visitors to UK farms and now OFS is looking to broaden its reach further to schools and pull in more partners along the length of the supply chain.

It is a move that OFS organisers believe will ultimately boost UK fresh produce sales.

The event has seen its popularity enjoy a steady climb since its inaugural outing in 2006, when a very creditable 300 farms welcomed 30,000 visitors, not least due to the number of retailers and supply chain partners that have come on board to support a growing number of farms.

This year, the retailers backing the initiative, which is organised by Linking the Environment And Farming (LEAF), are Asda, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco and for the first time, Aldi.  

The discount retailer is clearly delighted to get the behind the initiative and this willingness to muck in on the part of retailers has played a huge role in the success of OFS. It’s reciprocal of course, as their involvement garners very positive public relations at a time when their relationships with suppliers are often the subject of negative press.

“At Aldi we work closely with our British farmers and we’re extremely proud to support them,” says a spokesperson for the retailer. “We know high quality, locally-sourced produce is just as important to our customers and our farmers… We’re delighted to sponsor Open Farm Sunday 2015. We fully support its aims in generating awareness of where food comes from and how it is produced, as well as the vital role farmers have in caring for the countryside.”

Long-time partner Tesco is sponsoring again in 2015, but this time through its Eat Happy Project; the retailer’s long-term commitment to help children develop a healthier and happier relationship with food.

“We believe that if children understand more about food and where it comes from, they can make better decisions about what they put on their plates when they grow up,” Tesco explains in a statement. “We want to help children see, up close, where their food is grown and hear about how it’s made – from the experts who produce it.”

Growing numbers

In a landmark anniversary year, LEAF hopes to get 500 farms involved in 2015 and build on last year’s total of 207,000 visitors to 375 farms. During the course of the last nine editions, the scale and nature of activity by individual growers and farmers has already developed, according to Annabel Shackleton, who heads up events at LEAF, including OFS.

“Over the years we have seen some farmers group together to offer events or take it in turns to open their farms and support each other or work together with contractors, agronomists or vets for example,” she explains. “That is one of the core messages; getting people to work together and it has come from the farmers themselves.”

Now Shackleton is hoping to see relationships with supermarkets develop further and is encouraged by the target that Asda has set for 50 of its suppliers to open on OFS. There are also some great examples of teamwork via OFS; with one grower amalgamating the event with a local vintage vehicle display, while another has seen his farm day grow from 12 people in 2006 to 3,000 in 2014.

Farm visitors can pick their own potatoes at one OFS farm or even go on a Malteser Safari in Norfolk to find out about how malting barley and sugar beet are grown. “Some growers are involving chefs too and encouraging simple cooking skills,” says Shackleton. “For example, pizza making – how fabulous to be able to tell the whole story from the wheat that makes the dough through to the peppers and tomatoes in the topping.”

Building on the feedback

The concept of OFS grew out of one of LEAF’s charitable objectives to build public trust and understanding, and represents one of the nine different elements of integrated farm management to foster community engagement.  

One of the most valuable aspects of OFS is the feedback and research generated around it. In the past, OFS has teamed up with the Royal Agricultural University to produce a report after the annual event. While studies often show a worrying lack of knowledge among UK consumers, the level of feedback from OFS both via paper and online forms is high – 2,000 participants – therefore giving valuable statistical information on the success of the events.

“We pride ourselves on our research among farmers and visitors and we get great feedback,” says Shackleton. “Last year 97% thought the event was good or excellent and although 20% said they had never been to a farm before, 85% said they had experienced a significant increase in knowledge and that they learnt something they did not know before their visit,” says Shackleton.

These figures are encouraging, but Shackleton is under no illusion; stressing that it shows the need to educate the public. Now she is hoping that more elements of the supply chain will get involved and encourage their grower-suppliers to sign up too.

“It is not too late for this year and it can be hugely rewarding to help out,” she says. “For example, Produce World Group and BerryWorld support their grower suppliers, and we would love to see relationships develop with wholesale markets, foodservice suppliers and more supermarkets.”

Now the OFS team is working on Open Farm School Days which has emerged from the success of OFS and sees growers and farmers open their operations on various days in June for organised school visits.

“It is so important for the public to know where their food comes from and how much work goes into producing it,” says Shackleton. “It is good for the retailer and their relationship with their customers too; it helps them to value what they buy and understand the price they pay so farmers and growers will get a good price for their produce.”

Case study: Produce World

Produce World Group sends a team to one of its grower-suppliers to help on Open Farm Sunday. In 2014 they headed to Russell Smith Farms of Duxford in Cambridgeshire – a LEAF demonstration farm that grows mainly potatoes and onions over some 2,000 acres. Visitor numbers were high, with an estimated 1,000 people experiencing the farm on the day.

Andrew Burgess, director of agriculture at the Produce World Group, is personally involved in taking visitors on trailer rides around the farm, with the trailer hitched to the back of a tractor specially decorated with leeks, cauliflowers and a wrap-a-round of potatoes. He explains to visitors the farming stages throughout the year and the different crops that are in the ground at the farm. Burgess also explains the role of LEAF in modern, sustainable agriculture.

Visitors also get the chance to feel different vegetables and guess what they are without seeing them. “It is so encouraging to see people wanting to engage with farming,” a company spokesperson says. “We love welcoming people to our farms to gain an idea of what our work involves and the children really love our potato tractor.”

To sign up for Open Farm Sunday 2015, click here

 
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