Farming feature: Middle schools shake-up signals end of an era at Stonham Aspal farm

David Tydeman with aroundchildren from Needham Market middle school being shown around his farm.

David Tydeman with aroundchildren from Needham Market middle school being shown around his farm. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

For nearly 40 years, farmer David Tydeman of Stonham Aspal has been hosting annual school visits from Needham Market Middle School after joining an initiative started by the East Anglian Daily Times in the 1970s to help children learn about where their food comes from. This term, that tradition comes to an end with the phasing out of the county’s middle schools. SARAH CHAMBERS paid him a visit.

There is a sense of sadness as farmer David Tydeman describes how generations of schoolchildren have traipsed his land, watched in wonder as a litter of piglets are born, seen machines working the land and picnicked on the grass.

For last month, the farm played host to the last class from Needham Market Middle School to pour off a coach and onto the yard to take in the smell, sights and sounds of a real farm.

David, of Broughton Hall, Stonham Aspal, Stowmarket, who runs the farm with brother, Charles, has been welcoming curious schoolchildren for nearly 40 years, having signed up to a school farm scheme launched by the East Anglian Daily Times in the mid-1970s. But a shakeup of the county education system means that Needham Market Middle is winding down. The Year 5s who have been coming on farm visits for the last four decades are leaving, prior to the school’s eventual closure in 2015, and so the old ties with the farm will be broken.

“I think it’s sad. I enjoy having them around,” says David, who has five grandchildren. “Every time there will be some who are absolutely delightful, a lot who are a bit cheeky or a bit brash, but when you come down to it, most are interested in what you are doing.”

David gives up a day a year to host the event - and at one stage, when numbers were larger, even two days - and feels it is time well spent.

“It’s just a case of trying to find the time when I don’t think it will be too busy,” he explains.

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“I don’t do too much preparation now, but I just love being able to communicate with the children and give them an idea of what happens on a farm.”

David is full of praise for the school and for its teaching staff, who have supported the visits over the years.

“The children have benefited enormously I think from the quality of the teaching there,” he says.

“Basically the standard of questions has gone up, and the standard of behaviour has gone up over the years. It’s got all the hallmarks of being an excellent school.”

David’s is a beautiful old farm, steeped in history, and filled with old Roman finds, many of which have found their way to the Ipswich Museum. It was once the site of a Roman villa and David will come across bits of Roman brick from time to time. The fresh water springs which would have supported the ancient settlement are long gone. What remains is an ancient moated hall, its front pathway lit by fairy lights, a collection of farm buildings, some of which house the farm’s pig operation, and an arable operation.

These provide a rich source of educational material for the youngsters, who are shown how crops grow and how pigs are reared.

The farm’s partnership with the middle school dates back to an initiative started by the EADT to encourage schools to include farming in their curriculum. “They formed partnerships between individual schools and farms to enable children to visit a working farm and learn a bit about where their food came from. We were partnered with Needham Market Middle School and have hosted a visit from them every year since the project started to our mutual benefit,” says David.

“You get the truth from 10-year-olds and quickly learn what future consumers find important. For the last five years or so I have had the dubious pleasure of hosting children whose parents came to the farm in the early days.”

In the past, David would host parties of up to 60 or so children, but since the middle school closure was announced, numbers have fallen to about half that.

The visit consisted of a walking tour of the growing crops, farm buildings and machinery in the morning, packed lunch by the farmhouse with a half hour question and answer session and then a tour of the pig enterprise.

“No charge has ever been made to the school, it is purely a PR exercise from my point of view and a very enjoyable one at that,” says David.

David and brother, Charles, who is 10 years younger, went to Reading University and Writtle College respectively and in typical family farming mode, they eventually returned to help out their father, Alec, who was the second generation to run the farm.

The operation includes 570 acres which belong to the family and a further 350 acres which is shared farmed for its share partners. They grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet and sometimes beans.

After graduating in 1971, David took time out to work at a pig breeding unit in the Chilterns where he learnt more about the sector. The family farm had always kept pigs but David, now 63, wanted to get it on a more professional footing.

“At that time, our pig unit was in need of a lot of attention would be a polite way of putting it,” says David. “So I went on a farm visit from university, a set-up in the Chilterns, a multiplication herd producing boars and gilts.

“I was so impressed with the place I contacted them to ask if I could get a job with them for a year to learn the ins and outs of pig breeding. I learnt the job and then came home to give dad a hand. That was my main interest when I started.”

David set about expanding the herd for 40 sows to 170 and set up a multiplication herd for a Kent-based company, but after that got taken over in 2000, and following successive disease outbreaks in the sector which were making it more difficult to run economically, the family decided to get rid of the breeding herd.

The farm now finishes around 2,500 pigs a year for Stradbroke-based pig firm BQP, which supplies Waitrose.

The business also has a small caravan diversification through the Caravan Club and David’s brother has five holiday cottages.

“Unlike a lot of farmers, we have retained our tied houses and now, because we are not employing the labour we once did, they are increasingly becoming part of the business in going into the rental market,” says David, who explains that one is occupied by two staff members and another by the widow of one of the farm workers.

“It’s a very old-fashioned arrangement now, but it suits us and it suits them. A lot of people have gone away from that. With the Wages Board going they are far more reliant on being treated fairly with the wages,” says David.

David, whose wife, Elizabeth, is a retired primary school teacher, recalls how he became involved in the EADT schools farm initiative a few years after joining his father on the farm through wanting to do something to change people’s preconceptions of farming. He was already doing talks at the local Stonham primary school and it was the natural next step. When a friend from the folk music world who was teaching at Needham Market middle approached him, he jumped in.

“There was a perception then that the general public were becoming more and more isolated from farming and they were less and less about where their food came from. The stories came round that children thought sprouts grew on trees and this sort of thing. The EADT wanted to help reduce ignorance among children in particular by linking schools with farms. The schoolchildren would have free visits to farms and the farmer would talk to them and tell them about what was going on,” he explains.

“It was the whole ‘Silent Spring’ era. That was really when farm conservation movement got a push in a big way I think. When I was at university, farm conservation wasn’t mentioned. It really started off in the 70s. People were beginning to question what was going on on farms. It was another reason for telling children our point of view.”

He adds: “I could see that there was a need for the farming community not just to sit back and moan that people didn’t know this and didn’t know that and they were ignorant townies and so on. We needed to be proactive in telling them what we were doing and why we were doing it. At that time the farming industry was terribly defensive and the idea of inviting people onto the farm and telling them what we were doing was alien.”

David missed one year due to foot-and-mouth in 2001, but apart from that, continued to welcome children on the farm for the next four decades. “Children of that age of 9/10/11 years old they ask obvious questions but a lot of them are beginning to question why and they are just a delightful age to work with,” he says.

“I give them a very short welcome and talk. They we go off on a a walk around the farm. We walk around one and a half miles and see all the different crops that are growing and I tell them about when each crop is sown and ask them what each crop is doing. We talk to them about farm conservation and let them see why we do this and that let them see the owl boxes. Sometimes we get to see something that’s interesting - a buzzard or a hare.”

Needham Market middle school teacher Alison Leech has been involved in organising the trips for about the past 20 years. She finds it refreshing to be able to take the children to a working farm.

“We so appreciate all the years our school has been going. It’s rare for a school to have such a long communication with an employer or a place of work or a business. He’s always been extremely hospitable. We have really, really appreciated it,” she says.

“We are so grateful to David.”