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Children on Farms: From Dartington to Essex and Back

Martin Large with Marina O’Connell

Rising levels of obesity is an invitation to consider what helps children’s health and well-being for life. Mark and Marina O‘Connell of the Apricot Centre observe that, ‘If children are given the opportunity to make connections to nature and growing healthy food on a farm, a school garden or an allotment then in the long term, we think that this will lead to them having healthier diet, a broader palette, a greater sense of wellbeing and it forms the basis for respect for place and nature.’

Marina pioneered her work with children ‘by accident’ when setting up School Farm at Dartington Hall in the 1980’s. She then developed the Apricot Centre on a  4 acre smallholding near Manningtree in Essex, growing organic fruit, with 500 square meters of glass house for vegetables, an educational centre and a kitchen for food processing, eating and preserving. Mark at this time was training in psychotherapist and is now a practicing child and family psychotherapist. They have over the years discussed these observations and interactions. They have recently been offered a 36 acre small holding for a demonstration Biodynamic farm at Dartington, near Totnesin Devonwhere their work with children can be expanded in the West Country. This would include growing biodynamic vegetables outdoors, fruit, and raising chickens and cows. The Biodynamic Land Trust will enable a community buy out of the farm, launching at Totnes on 19th July.

The Concept: chickens and children

When Marina first started market gardening at Dartington Hall, she kept chickens on the 8 acre site. Every day the local pre-school group would wend their way after lunch to the garden for their walk, and brought their left overs from lunchto feed the chickens. After some months, the chickens saw the children snaking across the field and knew they were in for a treat, so they would start flapping and squawking. The children also knew they were in for a treat and also got excited.

One rainy afternoon, the chickens were penned in the field tidying up after a crop, enclosed with a flimsy electric fence,which was turned off as soon as thechildren arrived. As the children approached, the chickens flapped their wings, the children leaned on the fence and suddenly the chickens got out into the field, the children got in to the chicken pen and muddy mayhem happened. Marina remembers this as one of the hilarious highlightsof her 10 year career at Dartington Hall. These observations made Marina realise that children love chickens and chickens love children, and that this excitement around collecting eggs and feeding animals also carried through to digging up potatoes, picking a strawberry, sowing a seed and more.

Over the years, TheApricot Centre has worked with more than 20 schools introducing outdoor classrooms, inviting them to their small farm for the experience of food growing. Children come from  some of the most deprived areas of Essex. We have observed that if children are given the opportunity to make connections to nature and healthy foodon a farm or a school garden thiscan lead them to having a healthier diet and a greater sense of wellbeing – andit forms the basis for respect for place and nature.

Just as children “attach” to a parent, we suggest thatchildren “attach” to nature (orchickens) given the opportunity, which in the long term could contribute towards them living a more sustainable lifestyle and a experiencing a greater sense of wellbeing. We have no proof for this other than experience and observation of 14 years of work with children in these settings.

The Practice

We invite school groups, home education groups, preschool groups, specialist schools for childrenwith autistic spectrum disorders, to the Apricot Centre. The format is normally a tour of our small farm with age and ability appropriate explanations of what they are seeing and looking at. We makethis as richly sensoryas possible with tastings, smelling, touching, looking and hearing what the site has to offer at any particular time of the year. We follow the children’s responses as much as possible so the visit might change depending upon the interests of the children.

Once the tour is over we have an activity that is tailored to the group and what they want to learn. Playful and practical activities that engage and absorb children. These include such diverse activities as settingup a market stall and selling produce to each other; pickingapples, pressing and drinking the juice; somescience – plant lifecycles, pollination, composting; socialhistory ofthe site and who came before us on the farm – in our case it was unemployed Geordie miners from Newcastle upon Tyne who were attracted by the Land Resettlement Association. Then there are art projects, using resources from the garden as much as possible. The favourite activity is cookery – picking, cooking and eatinglunch as a group. We make dens, wildlife habitats and bug hotels, exploring the wildlife on site. Occasionally, wejust sit quietly for 10 minutes by a tree. In schools one great success has been mud pie corner – giving the opportunity to play with mud for those that have grown up in flats with no mud.

Our aim is that the children have fun, and have experiences they might not have at school or at home, that can be used by the teachers or parents as an “hook” to build on learning in the future. We use mostly active and tactile learning methods on site. We carry our risk and benefit analysis for all of the tasks and are fully insured. Higher Level Stewardship fundingis used currently to pay for the visits, but in the past we have worked extensively with Creative Partnerships.

Mark O’Connell is a child psychotherapist working for CAMHS. He would like to extend the farmbased activities that may have a therapeutic value for children who have experienced trauma. We are slowly exploring how we can offer these activities to affected groups of parents, carers and children.

Back to Dartington?

The Apricot Centre has now been invited to scale up its work by developing a demonstration Biodynamic farm at Week, Dartington in South Devon. This new family farm will restore soil fertility, grow good organic food, increase biodiversity, enhance the landscape, train apprentices, serve the community, welcome children and be a viable farm business, all on 36 acres. This farm will use a tool box of biodynamic, organic, permacultural and agro-ecological methods to transform bare land which has grown wheat and maize using artificial fertilizers for many years.

The community farm buyout for Week Farm will be opened on Saturday 19th July at Dartington Village Hall by local councillor Jacqui Hodgson, Mayor of Totnes. This will launch a £326,000 community share offer to raise the capital needed to buy the land into the Biodynamic Land Trust for the Apricot Centre to farm. The BDLT meets the urgent need for enabling farmers to gain access to land without the crippling burden of debt, and help build sustainable food systems,’ says Patrick Holden, Director, Sustainable Food Trust. Local resident WendyCook, author of the Biodynamic Cookbook, says that ‘Marina O’Connell is a horticulturalist who knows the Dartington soil well and can make the Week land flourish again.’

Every little helps! The Week Farm co-op buyout offers people the opportunity to invest in their community’s farming future for children’s well-being, health, food security, family farming and a living, working countryside. Just as Fordhall Farm, Market Drayton in Shropshire was saved in 2006 when 8000 people invested £800,000, so Week Farm can be secured into co-op trusteeship for the Apricot Centre  if many people give or invest.

Have a look at the Share Offer Prospectus here!

Marina O’Connell is a collaborator with the Biodynamic Land Trust from the Apricot Centre CIC: http://www.apricotcentre.co.uk/

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