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To the dairy

with Jo North, South East England

Disabled children and adults visiting the farm

We are a 1,000 acre dairy and arable farm in the South Downs National Park, with a herd of nearly 200 milking cows and 150 or so replacements. We grow maize, wheat, barley and oilseed rape, much of which is used for cow feed. I have done three LNFYS visits this year (2010) with adults and children with a variety of disabilities. Two were onsite at the farm and the other was a visit to a special school. Here are some of my special moments from those visits. I had a visit from a small group of adults with learning difficulties who came as part of their Tuesday photography club. Many of them were very nervous about the calves as we allow them to go into the pens and pet them, however all but one plucked up the courage eventually and they petted them, had their fingers sucked and were all very proud of their achievement. A particular highlight for me was one chap, Mark, who was desperate to see the tractors. He managed to climb up into the cab and was on cloud nine, pretending to drive it! They also had a lot of fun comparing their heights with the size of the wheels and got lots of great photos for their club. Each individual reacts differently to being out on the farm, some are very exuberant others are quieter but it is possible to find a range of activities which everyone can get something out of. This is when communicating with the group organiser and having a pre-visit meeting has been invaluable for me as you can discuss what activities are suitable for their group and make sure that everyone gets the most out of their visit. Other visits have been from a school for children with autism and other disabilities, one has been onsite to the farm and one has been me taking the farm into the school. Buttercup, our milking cow, has been a huge hit with the children. They discover what she eats, feed her, discover what she sleeps on, mix up the magic milk and then actually milk her. On my visit into the school, Buttercup really came into her own and the children loved mixing the milk and then being a part of the process of milking, its very messy but loads of fun with a great sense of achievement! I have also never realised quite how therapeutic the grains could be until my first LNFYS visit, both times children who have failed to engage with anything else on my visit, one child being particularly distressed at the smells and sounds of the farm, have been enraptured and soothed by playing with the grains. One little boy spent my entire visit moving the grains between two cat litter trays and singing to himself, it was very moving to watch such a simple thing being so effective and the staff thought it was amazing how relaxed and focussed he was for such a long period of time. We also use the grains to make shakers, giving the children a lasting and noisy memory of their visit and it’s a simple and fun activity to do. When the children visited the farm, it was the summer and we had a beautiful day and were able to eat our lunch in the fields. The children loved the open space and the leaders commented on how rare it was for them to be able to be somewhere like this, completely safe in the middle of a huge field in the countryside. After lunch a few of us walked to the top of the hill to find foxes and badgers and despite no sign of any wildlife at all it was all worth it to be able to run full pelt down the hill! There was plenty of excitement and laughter as the children recounted their ‘adventure’! Both visits to the farm have culminated in watching the milking, which is a unique and sometimes quite overwhelming experience as it is quite noisy and the we get very close to the adult cows. I try really hard to link what they are seeing to the milk they drink at home, but I think it is the experience itself that creates the link so I try not to be too teachey! The dairy parlour is great for the computer geeks and I have found that letting the visitors ask questions gives me a good idea of what they are interested in and therefore how to make sure they get the most out of their visit. One thing I try hard not to do is underestimate our visitors, one child with autism and ADHD had an incredible head for facts and figures and wanted to know as many details as possible throughout the visit, and then proceeded to test me at the end, as I am not a real farmer that was quite a challenge for me! Finally, one of my favourite moments was my most recent visit and Noel, one of the older ladies, met my dad John, the real farmer, who is sat in this room, and asked most politely and innocently when introduced if he was going to be retiring anytime soon! Every visit has a million special moments, for me and our visitors. I thoroughly enjoy people coming out to the farm, as you can see the excitement and the benefits first hand. The more fun I have the better the visit seems to be, and every one has been so different that it will never get boring. Not only do I need to engage with the adults and children with learning difficulties but also with their carers, so I totally over-prepare each visit and although we always have a plan this is flexible depending on the needs of the day. LNFYS has taught me so much already and given me some wonderful experiences and I look forward to more visits next year.