“Most of the ingredients were the freshest people had experienced, some were pulled out of the ground only a few minutes before. During this community event, we gave groups of people a list of fresh ingredients and set them the task of picking, preparing and transforming them into a healthy, colourful and exciting meal. Watching their enthusiasm as they cooked, their creativity, their excitement about the food in their hands, overwhelmed me. Everyone worked together, adults and children. I’d always wanted to empower people to feed themselves healthily and ethically and there it was, happening under the eyes of the sun.”
Softly spoken, Fatma exudes the gentle grace of a teacher; and in a sense she is one, but she is also the mind and driving force behind the Shillingford Organics Farm School.
“Although I was brought up in Cairo, the biggest city in Africa, where contact with the natural world is scarce, I have always felt a strong connection to nature. Things like being close to the Nile, catching a glimpse of the glowing full moon, or hearing the ever so rare rain shower when it fell, always made me feel alive and desperate for more.”
“I’d developed a love for gardening while living in France and I’d started taking my children to farmers’ markets to teach them about food. As soon as we moved to Exeter, I found out about the market on Thursdays where I ended up coming across a call for apple pickers at the Shillingford farm. I spoke to Martyn Bragg and asked if I could come along with a friend and our daughters to volunteer while learning about all the different varieties of apples, and he welcomed us.
“When I got there, I was blown away by the beauty of the place. The richness of wildlife there kept us and our little ones entertained and we grew more curious with every volunteering day,” declares Fatma, her own natural curiosity plainly visible.
“My daughter had started pre-school. I found out they needed to employ assistant growers at the farm at the time, so I jumped at the opportunity. Then, in the run up to Christmas 2015, I remember we were harvesting purple sprouting broccoli during the early hours of a frosty morning. As we harvested and chatted about the incredible taste of the florets, Martyn turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could share this with the community?’
“I had been continually intrigued at how close, yet so distant, we all are from the natural world and I’d always thought that food was the perfect link to reconnect us with it. My children have always been my favourite teachers—children have a remarkable ability to influence us as parents—so the following day I proposed the Farm School idea to Martyn and he was fully behind it.
“It has been nonstop learning from that day on. We started with a simple bordered area and a small polytunnel on the main Shillingford farm. I advertised the farm school through independent food shops and handed out flyers with a packet of seeds at local school gates. People were intrigued. To start with, parents could either drop off their children or stay and take part in the activities, but eventually almost everyone stayed.
“By April 2016 we had seventeen families enrolled and we later grew to employ three educational officers including myself. Children are very sensorial. They love to taste, feel and touch; and food growing is a very sensory process so the school gained popularity.
“During the Farm School community event I referred to earlier, when the groups prepared their dishes with the fresh ingredients they had picked straight from the fields, I could hear laughter and feel a sense of togetherness that was spontaneous and moving. Being immersed in nature, and enhanced by that one thing that we all cherish and value… good food, was overwhelming; it was magical.”