Thousands of ‘virtual farmers’ invited to run real farm

Project aiming to reconnect people with nature seeks 10,000 ‘virtual farmers’ to have a say in the running of a real working farm in Cambridgeshire

The National Trust is currently recruiting 10,000 ‘virtual farmers’ to take part in a mass experiment in farming and food production. The charity will hand over control of Wimpole Farm in Cambridgeshire to a community of online farming novices. Participants will debate and vote on issues, such as what crops to sow, what animals to rear, and the wider impact of the farm on the environment.

Farm manager, Richard Morris, said: “I will plant whatever the online farmers want to grow.” He added: “Farming is always a compromise – there is never a right or wrong answer.” Morris wants Wimpole Farm to be profitable and to maintain the highest standards of sustainability and welfare.

The farmers will be able to monitor their progress via a constant stream of blogs, videos and podcasts.

The project, MyFarm, was partly inspired by the popular Facebook game Farmville, which currently has more than 45 million users. “It is Farmville for real; real farming decisions with real farming consequences,” said Morris.

MyFarm is the brainchild of National Trust employee Jon Alexander, who has been developing the idea for the last two years. “Having worked in advertising and digital media for some years, I’ve seen how these are generally used to take people away from engagement with reality,” Alexander said. “But I’ve always believed that the real potential of both is actually the opposite: to help us get involved in the big things.”

The project aims to reconnect consumers with where their food comes from. Clare Mullin, the National Trust’s director of brand and marketing, said: “There’s a disconnection between people and food. A recent survey showed that nearly a third of British teenagers think bacon comes from sheep. As the nation’s biggest farmer, the Trust has a responsibility to help rebuild that connection in creative, innovative ways.”

The project also aims to raise awareness about sustainable farming. “If we are going to find a sustainable way to feed 9 billion people by 2050, farming needs to change,” said Morris. “But it can’t do it on its own; it needs public opinion to change too.”

The National Trust hopes that MyFarm will become a vibrant and sustainable community. Jon Alexander has been impressed by the public’s enthusiasm for the project. He said: “We hit 1,000 members within our first 48 hours, which is well ahead of what we were hoping.”

Morris hopes that the project will attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. “This is an opportunity for the public to learn through the choices they make,” he said. “We’re hoping that teachers will join on behalf of classes and families, and business colleagues will work together.”