When I was a youngster on the farm back home, my father never gave the time of day to anyone who wasn’t a farmer or at least in some way involved in agriculture. Also, in those days, farmers were viewed as mysterious creatures, to be at least despised and preferably avoided altogether. I am talking about the days when the “Farming Programme” was on Sunday mornings at about 6am, before the real world had got out of bed. Farming magazines were hidden away in corner shelves in newsagents if they were on sale at all.
I am not sure when things changed, but change they did. In my years of going to and exhibiting at livestock shows throughout the country, the interest of the general public swung from horses and tacky stalls to the cattle and sheep section. In those days it was just the oohs and ahhs of children and mums looking at the pretty ones, especially the calves. In those days, the public never really had much idea of the breeds nor their assets. In those days, beef came from a butcher and so did lamb, probably New Zealand. I remember doing a TV programme with John Craven back in the late eighties where we were grooming some herd or other for sale. I wanted to explain about the reasons why this breed, (Charolais, I think they were) provided the best rump steaks and to go so far as to point out which part of the animal the beef cuts came from. He wasn’t into that. The less the public know about those things the better, was his attitude.
My how things have changed. Now most of the sheds at the home farm are full of someones storage, old cars, furniture and small businesses. Farmers now have their uses again. But more to the point, there are queues of people wanting to come around and look at the stock, especially lambing time. They know the breeds, the sexes and often the ages of the animals they see. They also want to roam the footpaths, no longer to trample the crops but to admire them, to see where their food comes from. For much of this, we can thank BBC pundits such as Adam Henson and (to a degree) Kate Humble and her crew.
What amazes me though, is that kids programmes and stories seem to ignore all this information. Where some adults now will know the difference between a pretty 4 horned Jacob ram and a productive mule ewe, kids are still being fed stories about all sheep having horns and drawings of black and white bulls. When did you last see a Friesian bull in real life? They don’t exist outside specialist insemination centres these days.
So when I write children’s stories about actual farm animals, doing what animals do but in a humorous way, this is deemed (by publishers) to be boring and not-of-the-right-time. They all want to brain-wash children with paranormal romance and football stories. Somewhere, in between the child and adult, there is a gap growing. The general public (the adult portion of anyway) are looking more and more to greener issues. Isn’t it time we approached some of these at a younger level? Not just, go green, drive a hybrid, but the ins and outs of farming and food production. When will a field trip consist of something a bit more educational that a petting zoo of city farm with rare breeds and goats? Why don’t kids get taken to a large dairy or beef farm, or, heaven forbid, a slaughterhouse? When I was at school, we had a bearded little professor who taught “agricultural science” from a big grey book. Even then, I knew he was teaching rubbish. The very sad thing is, while grown-ups are at last taking a keen interest in what they eat and how it is treated, that same old professor, or his ill-advised successors are still droning on about the same rubbish. When at the Highland Show last week, I spoke to some kids who were charging around the “rare breeds” sheep lines filling in a questionnaire about Soay sheep. I have to say, they had no idea about real agriculture what-so-ever and nor did their teacher. Why not?
Come on, if the world wants to go environmentally mad, then at least let the kids get a bit greener too. Let’s start by putting some animal books back on their shelves with a touch of reality about them.