After all her years of service for the South of England Agricultural Society (SEAS), Mary Masters is convinced that education is the society’s most important responsibility.

Mary is a SEAS member, sits on the society’s council and still sits on many of its committees, but she is proudest of her achievements on the education committee. It was here that she had the idea for Connect with the Countryside day, an event on the South of England showground in July which brings 2,500 primary school children in their coaches and cars.

“In the first year, I had to sell it to SEAS council,” said Mrs Masters, who is part of the Carr family, some of whom farm in East Sussex and have links with the show and SEAS going back over generations. Mrs Masters still lives near the family’s Spring Barn Farm in East Sussex, and is the cousin of Stephen Carr, who writes for South East Farmer. “The council said they would back the day, but I would have to find the money for it. For four years, I found between £10,000 and £15,000 to stage Connect with the Countryside.” Some local farmers gave their support because they agreed with educating young people about the countryside, but Mrs Masters also found grants and the old Government Office of the South East gave some money.

Today, SEAS pays for Connect with the Countryside with as much financial help as can be found. The NFU has supported the event from the start. For next year, though, the society will have to start fund raising again. On the day, the children have lots of different zones which they go to with teachers and a SEAS steward to learn about where their food comes from. In one zone, the children are shown some wheat which they grind to make flour. “They see the flour being made into dough and the dough being cooked to make rolls,” Mrs Masters said. They also find out how sausages and cheese are made. One year, the children were asked to identify vegetables. “They did not realise that peas were from a pod,” Mrs Masters remembered.

The sheep show comes to Connect with the Countryside, and is run by two men who go round the agricultural shows with different breeds, explaining their background and letting them dance and go through other routines in front of the children. Beef cattle, llamas, pigs and poultry are among the animals on display for the children to touch. A cookery show is put on by Mrs Masters’ second cousin Jethro Carr, the National Hedgelaying Society does a demonstration and there is a combine on display. “We couldn’t organise the day without the volunteer stewards, who are an integral part of the event. The children sow seeds and take them home, a group of ladies comes in and they make corn dollies with them and the children do wattle and daubing.”

Mary Masters was vice chairman of SEAS education committee for five years and chairman for another five years. She still sits on the committee which has a remit is to educate young people and the public about farming and the countryside.

The committee sponsors a Nuffield scholar every two years. “I have been to some of their conferences, and they are for the movers and shakers of this world. It is great to see them start out and watch them develop a role in life.”

The committee also runs a challenge competition in memory of Jim Green, a farmer and former SEAS chairman, for children with special needs. “The competition began with agricultural colleges but now it includes the schools,” Mrs Masters said. “The agricultural colleges sometimes find it tricky to put the competition in their curriculum.”

Plumpton, Hadlow and Brinsbury colleges all have large stands at the show to promote themselves, agricultural education and the countryside. Their links with the show are further strengthened by student assignment projects, in which college students submit their assignments to the education committee. “We judge the best assignment, and this year we’re going to mentor those young people and watch them move through their lives. I think it’s a wonderful idea.” The students could be studying any subject in the land based industries from wine production to fish farming, and the committee will offer them support and help as they go from college to their first job and onwards.

The education committee tries to visit and help schools, and this year some committee members are planning to go to schools and talk about farming. Although some farmers have in the past welcomed primary school children in particular on to their farms, today they are more concerned about the health and safety implications of visits, Mrs Masters said. “Primary schools are easier to take out than secondary schools which have a bigger workload. But I think sometimes teachers need to realise how much they can use the farm as a classroom.”

On 28 June, the education committee will be supporting STEMSussex – STEM stands for science, technology engineering and mathematics – which organises the Big Bang Fair. The committee will have a countryside careers zone at the fair, highlighting careers such as veterinary nursing and running a digger driving challenge. This event, too, is backed by the local agricultural colleges, and about 8,000 secondary school children are expected to turn up at the South of England showground.

Mary Masters was born on Arches Farm in Ringmer from where her father Jack supplied milk for bottling at the Carr family’s Spring Barn Farm at Kingston near Lewes, which is a farm park today but was a dairy farm then. At Spring Barn Farm, the milk was bottled and sold into Lewes and Newhaven.

By the early sixties, her father knew Nigel Radley Smith, who was a tenant of Sir Henry Price, the owner of Wakehurst Estate. Mr Radley Smith farmed land which is now the South of England Agricultural Society’s showground at Ardingly, West Sussex. “He was a dairy farmer, and he bought our herd a couple of times,” Mrs Masters said. “I did all his books and records.” Her father rented from him what is now the stockmen’s building on the showground, and pigs were kept there. “We had a cottage up there, too. Today, Len Short’s gate is on the showground, and Len Short’s father used to work for my father.”

Mrs Masters’ first recollections of the show are sitting on the Young Farmers committee, because she had been involved with the organisation since she was about 15. “The committee is still running today, and I was involved with it virtually from the start.” She chaired that committee for a couple of years and sat on it until three years ago. “Young Farmers has been my life, really.”

Mrs Masters has been to nearly all the shows since SEAS began, and the biggest change in that time has been that, although the stock numbers have stayed fairly even, the farming community does not attend in the same numbers that it used to. “I don’t think farmers have the time that they used to have to go to shows,” said Michael Carr, Mary Masters’ cousin. “Agricultural shows are no longer a showcase for the industry because technology has moved on and farmers are very busy people.” But although some farmers have gone, Mrs Masters will carry on educating children and adults about agriculture and the countryside. At this year’s South of England show, she will be in the education tent grinding corn and turning it into dough.

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