Turning the farm into a virtual classroom

CLA member Tom Martin, also known as ‘Farmer Tom’, helps schoolchildren across the UK get real-time, year-round understanding of farming thanks to an online initiative. Tim Relf reports

In 2016, Cambridgeshire farmer and CLA member Tom Martin founded the initiative Farmer Time. “If you’ve got a smartphone, if you’ve ever made a video call and if you can spare 15 minutes every few weeks, then you’ve got the technology, the training and the time to be part of Farmer Time,” he says.

Connecting generations

Farmer Time facilitates free video calls between farmers and schools. The children regularly chat live with their matched farmer from the classroom to get an insight into farming, food production and the countryside. Between 2016 and 2021, it connected 742 teachers and nearly 23,000 children with farmers across the UK.

“In previous generations, a significant percentage of people in the UK were either involved in farming or had a living relative involved in farming,” says Tom. “Nowadays, the vast majority don’t.”

We have never known less about where our food comes from, but we’ve never been more interested in where our food comes from. That disconnect is where Farmer Time operates.

Tom Martin

Farmers, he says, will increasingly need the support of the whole nation – and there’s no better way to ensure that happens than by engaging young people.

“Schoolchildren are the consumers of today through pester power, and the consumers of tomorrow through their own purchasing choices. We are also in a time of significant change in the farming labour market, and they are our potential workforce. They’re also our future politicians. One of my dreams is that the farmers of tomorrow won’t be able to complain that the politicians of tomorrow don’t understand farmers.”

Social media gives an unrepresentative – and sometimes false – impression of agriculture. Farmer Time aims to give children enough knowledge to form opinions based on proper information. “It’s not time-consuming,” says Tom. “It’s about half an hour a month maximum, yet the impact is amazing. The teacher runs the class and facilitates it – so you’re just the expert who gets to answer their questions.”

“People occasionally say ‘I’m only a dairy farmer’ – but there’s no ‘only’ about it. Every farmer knows about biology, nutrition, soils, botany, stewardship, the weather, climate change, water and air and machinery. This knowledge dovetails with subjects as varied as maths, history and biology.”

Classroom Farmer Facetime
Schools connect with farmers who chat to the children every few weeks to provide an insight into farming, food production and the countryside

Engaging learning

Farmer Time has come a long way since 2016. The inspiration came when he was at a Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth conference in Singapore, during a session on how farmers could use technology to promote what they do. A delegate from the US explained how farmers make video calls during the State Fair of Texas.

“I thought it sounded great, but it struck me it was only using a fraction of the technology we have. I thought: Why can’t we connect each classroom in the UK with their own farmer?” So Tom, recently back on the family farm after a spell in business and the film industry, came up with Farmer Time.

“It felt like something very simple, using technology we already had in our pockets. I recorded a short video in a rapeseed field and asked: ‘Are there any parents whose children’s class might like to do a video call to me every few weeks to let you know what’s been going on?’ I thought I’d get a couple of responses, but there were a couple of hundred from teachers who said it would be a great way to bring learning to life.”

One of Farmer Time’s strengths is the way it takes children on a journey with the farmer, getting to know them and seeing how the farm changes between the seasons. This is an important year for Farmer Time – and the team has big plans. Feedback shows that 100% of teachers would recommend the experience, and that every farmer who’s been involved has enjoyed the system of making these secure video calls to the classroom.

“We have 1,000 farmers, but ultimately we’re aiming for 4,000. We want to get to 100,000 children having a virtual visit every few weeks. It’s such a rewarding experience, too. One teacher said: ‘This is changing the lives of young people’. That took my breath away.”

The future could include a Welsh-language version, and its international footprint is set to spread; it has already been deployed in countries including Finland and Australia. “My primary focus will always be the UK, but it’s a model that can be used effectively around the world as, in essence, we franchise the rights to run it elsewhere,” explains Tom. “We’re thinking about how we could launch it in the US. It’s a very different country, but there’s still the same need for it.”

“As we step away from the land, we realise there’s something in all of us that draws us back to it – and that process is happening in many countries, and in all of them there is an appetite to be reconnected to the land.”

In some ways, Tom’s own journey has paralleled Farmer Time. “I lived in London for ten years, but came back to the farm because I wanted to be immersed in farming, nature and to try to have a positive impact on the environment. Coming back was a risk. I knew I would like farming – but liking it isn’t enough, you’ve got to love it. Thankfully, I found I did. And I certainly love doing Farmer Time.”

Igniting interest

Carl Edwards, Director of Education and Public Engagement at LEAF, says: “It is never too early to start talking to children about farming, to spark their interest, to ignite their sense of wonder and to share the realities of how their food is produced.

“Farmer Time is one of the ways we are transforming the way we connect our future generations with farming and empowering them to make healthy sustainable food choices. Our wider work at LEAF Education develops an ever-deeper meaningful connection through important experiential learning opportunities.”