The Year of Food and Farming is all about teaching children about the link between the soil, the countryside and food production; about helping them to discover the joys of planting a seed in the earth, to see it grow, to harvest it themselves and then to eat what they have grown.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to see you all here at Highgrove for the launch of the Year of Food and Farming, of which I could not be more delighted to be Patron. Today is the brainchild of two remarkable people, Sir Don Curry and Sir Mike Tomlinson, and they and their hardworking team deserve our warmest congratulations for having the determination and, indeed, vision to make this massive venture a reality. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

As someone who has long been concerned about the growing disconnection between people and the land – far more so in Britain than elsewhere in Europe – you can imagine perhaps how encouraged I was when Don told me of his plans for a Year of Food and Farming. At the end of the day there is nothing like strength in numbers and so, looking at the remarkable list of supporters of the Year, I suspect it can only be a huge success. In so many ways it reinforces much of what I have been trying to do over the years and I am delighted that so many of the organizations with which I am involved are partners in the initiative: for instance, the Soil Association, and its “Food for Life” campaign; the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens; Garden Organic; the Academy of Culinary Arts – a very good organization; my own food company, Duchy Originals, the Duchy of Cornwall and The Prince’s Trust through its “Get into Cooking” programme which is proving quite successful.

Today, as most of you will know, the Year of Food and Farming has published some research into children’s knowledge of the countryside, agriculture and food. It is pretty terrifying stuff and should make us pause for thought. Let me just remind you of some of the findings:

  • Firstly, one in five children never visit the countryside – that means that more than one million children across the country have absolutely no contact with the land.
  • Secondly, a fifth of children say they have never picked and then eaten fruit.
  • Thirdly, children in England aged between 11 and 15 now spend 55 per cent of their waking lives watching television and computers. That is equivalent to about 53 hours a week in front of a screen - a rise of 40 per cent over the last ten years!
  • Fourthly, we know that children without any experience of rural life are twice as likely to admit they don’t know where their food comes from.

Ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t take rocket science to realize there is a problem. But I really do think we need to ask ourselves some searching questions, such as whether this growing disconnection from the land, from the natural world and from understanding the rhythms of Nature, is part of the reason why too many young people are involved in anti-social behaviour, or far worse. According to Dr Aric Sigman’s research published today, children who have contact with Nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline, and he reports that exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development. Above all, and this to me is the most interesting finding of all, schools with outdoor education programmes have better academic results and classroom behaviour. This, I can only say, is one of the reasons I have for so long been such a committed supporter of school farms. I do believe that they are crucial to the whole issue of how you can get people into the land again; just by getting your hands dirty, putting a seed in the ground or looking after animals.

 

Today, we have some pupils from a particularly special school farm, Oathall Community College. If you have not visited it, I strongly suggest that you might find it worthwhile. It is a remarkable place under the management of a remarkable person, Howard Wood. We will hear from him and one of his students in a minute, but the magic of this farm is that its activities are woven into every part of the curriculum – whether it be maths, art, business or environmental studies – the farm is part of every child’s experience at the school. And for those that find academic studies more of a struggle, they learn practical skills which are as valuable and are equally celebrated by the school. They also tend to respond extremely positively to working with farm animals. The great thing is that every child can be a success at something and this gives an enormous sense of self-confidence and self-worth - two characteristics which I know from The Prince’s Trust are most often lacking from young people who go off the rails. To my delight, ladies and gentlemen, the alarming decline in the number of school farms has not only been halted, but there are now twenty-five schools actively developing or considering a school farm. Meanwhile, for those for whom a farm could never be possible, gardens and small plots for cultivation are increasing all the time. And so much can be done in a small space – dare I say it by getting rid of some of that ubiquitous and depressing black tarmac and turning an area into a place for children to grow vegetables. Every school could do it – even if it is just a window box!

The Year of Food and Farming is all about teaching children about the link between the soil, the countryside and food production; about helping them to discover the joys of planting a seed in the earth, to see it grow, to harvest it themselves and then to eat what they have grown. Above all, they need to learn to cook it. This is the only way really to educate children about healthy eating. How else can we really expect children to care about the food they eat unless they understand how it is grown? (I rather thought Jamie Oliver had demonstrated that point extremely well in his series about schools meals.) Increasingly schools are understanding the benefits of using good local food. Home Farm now provides carrots and potatoes to a number of schools in South Gloucestershire – the pupils even don’t mind eating mishapen carrots. If they don’t know that milk comes from a cow and carrots from the soil, how can they make judgements on what is good or bad for them? Only last week the Food Standards Agency published a report that showed us what we knew already – that increased hyperactivity occurs in children who have eaten artificial food additives. One of the main priorities of the Year of Food and Farming is to help children – and adults – care about what they put in their bodies. We are, after all, what we eat and if this Year is about anything, it is to teach children to care about good, slower food, not fast food.

It is also about giving children a chance to get onto a farm, to learn about managing livestock and the farming seasons. It is one of the reasons why I regularly invite schools to the Duchy Home Farm (we have had twelve visits this year alone, involving 250 children) – and we have two of them here today, Avening, a local primary school and Oathall from Haywards Heath in Sussex. (And in a few minutes they will offer you some bread which they, and incidentally I, made on the farm just this morning.) Of course, a sustained relationship with a school through regular visits must be best. But I remember Patrick Holden, the Director of the Soil Association, who grew up in London telling me that it was as a result of just one visit to a farm when he was a small boy that he decided he wanted more than anything to be a dairy farmer. That is the sort of experience that should be given to every child. It can be life-changing…

Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that the health benefits might be even more than I have already stated. A few years ago the Royal College of Physicians produced a report entitled “Allergies – the Unmet Need”. It showed that this country has an allergy epidemic. And one of the reasons, the report identified, was the lack of exposure to farm animals. Indeed, the Chairman of the Physicians’ report told me that a pig, for instance, has all the beneficial micro-organisms that can help to strengthen the human immune response against allergies. So, perhaps, through this Year we can begin to address a whole range of deep-seated problems….

And talking of problems, it may be worth mentioning that for farmers and teachers who, understandably, fear that health and safety and insurance rules might make farm visits all too difficult, I am delighted that under the aegis of the Year of Food and Farming there is now plenty of advice available and I can only urge you to look at the website and find out more. Here I must pay tribute to the NFU Mutual which is offering unrestricted cover to farmers for individual visits from schools…

Ladies and gentleman, at the end of the day we should be under no illusions as to the importance of this whole Year. It is about rescuing today’s generation of over-industrialized children, about instilling in them a life-long appreciation of food and the way it is produced and reconnecting them with Nature so that they may have a better understanding of why it is so precious to the health and well-being of each and every one of us. If, after all this effort, we can begin to transform attitudes to food and farming and, in particular, to the fortunes of Britain’s family farmers and the rural communities which depend upon them, then it will all have been worthwhile and an incredibly valuable investment in our future.