Behind the scenes at the Nests Little Smallholding
- Credit: Irene Amiet
It may look like fun on the farm, but these children are learning important lessons. Irene Amiet reports
Self-made, first generation farmer Georgie Mitchell is winning hearts on social media with candid pictures of her animal-hugging, straw-covered children and her honest comments about farming life. 'Farm School' on Greenacre Allotments near Higham is her way to let other children enjoy excitement her smallholding offers.
Georgie, a former teacher, has spent the last few years building her business 'The Nests Little Smallholding', from scratch. Sausage production, eggs, Christmas trees, steaks and lamb shanks, are all part of what she offers from her self-raised, free-roaming animals. 'I hope my produce is an alternative for people eyeing veganism to boycott battery meat production,' says Georgie, busy boiling milk for the various young animals in her barn. It's no surprise that one of the messages Georgie wants to bring across in her 'Farm School' is that eating meat should go hand-in-hand with respecting livestock; respect comes with knowledge. 'We need to know where food comes from and how much it takes to put sausages on their plates. Children lack being taught about food production in their curriculum.
'I decided to combine being a teacher, a mum and a farmer and pass on my knowledge, while still learning myself.'
At ten o'clock on a sunny summer morning, ten pairs of wellies, as colourful as their diverse wearers, stomp into Georgie's barn, carrying eager toddlers. Piglets oink, goats baa for milk, heifers wrap their tongues around metal bars in anticipation of feed and ducks and chickens strut about, demanding their food with loud squawks.
The little farmers this morning range from 18 months to four years old and are all as keen as each other. This is their second visit and the animals are quite familiar to them already. The first task is to feed the goats. Georgie shows how it's done and little hands grasp the milk bottles, trying to imitate their teacher. Despite spillage, loud squeaks and giggles due to tickling animal tongues, the menagerie gets fed.
'What's next?' asks Georgie. 'Water? Exactly!' And with a lot of splashing and mess, buckets are filled to be placed into the animal pens. 'This was never supposed to be just a petting zoo,' says Georgie, who manages to look fresh and perky no matter how much milk spills on her or straw sticks out of her long hair.
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To make the 'Farm School' work, Georgie has taken on extra jobs in milking parlours on top of caring for her own family and farm. 'I did wobble at times, just being bone tired, but Dolly, my five-year-old daughter, kept me going. She doesn't know it but the credit is hers. When I was ready to give up, she'd come along with books on animals to share and gave me the inspiration to continue.'
It's obvious the Farm School is a labour of love. The details applied throughout are testimony of hard work. 'I tried to upcycle wherever I could,' says Georgie, who coloured old tyres to use for planters or re-used old laying boxes for shelves. Even the thatched roof of her children's book shelf was hand-made by Georgie to fit the atmosphere of a wholesome, happy school area. Never having thatched before, she just looked it up on YouTube. 'If I want to bring one message across to other people, especially women, it's to simply go for what you want to do. Work hard, and believe in yourself.'
One Farm School session lasts an hour and a half. Small children especially get enough excitement and mental nourishment to last them for the day. There's a lot to take in. After feeding comes sweeping of the barn floor with pint-sized brooms at the ready.
Part of the session takes part in the vegetable garden. The sensory part is a favourite. 'Children love to touch matter and to fling soil, shuffle it about to cover the potatoes, or just play with farm toys.'
The children see what it takes to grow peas and beans and pick mange touts and carrots, all of which they can try. If these greens do not agree with their palates, they are collected for the guinea pigs to eat.
Georgie works with the seasons, and children are able to watch the plants they tend grow until it's time to harvest.
One frame has leeks sprouting from the top soil which will be ready later in the year to be had as soup around a fire.
Each session ends with a story about farming. By that time the children think of Georgie as someone they've always known. Her teaching background is apparent in the way she engages with the children. Her lessons also strike a note with parents. She tries to fight our misconceptions of eating young animals after pulling them from their mothers, and shows it takes 9-10 months from a piglet's birth to tucking into your pork chop. Many farm shops go out of business because of the time and resources it takes to offer self-reared meat. 'One has to diversify to keep going,' says Georgie. In that sense the Farm School was also an economic decision. Georgie wanted to offer an alternative to bigger petting zoos. With her, children get one-on-one time with the farmer and aren't rushed from one activity to the other. 'Smaller kids need more quality time, to take things more slowly. There is plenty of fresh air and interaction, but coming to my farm should never lose that personal feel.' In the future, Georgie would enjoy to have inner city children visit her farm, not least because of the benefits of animal interaction. Some children aren't able to keep animals at home, and to handle and engage with a donkey or a kitten can be therapeutic. Georgie's own children are immersed in the farming lifestyle. 'At the end of the day it's their business as well. They're still as excited today as they were the first time they collected eggs. It just never wears off.'
For more information go to thenestslittlesmallholding.com