Growing together: how city farms have nurtured a generation of urban kids

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Tucked in a deep cleft east of Newcastle city centre, surrounded by the monochrome of the city’s tarmac and concrete, housing estates and warehouses, is an explosion of natural colour – rowan trees dripping with orange berries, purple verbena, sunflowers, sedum, nasturtiums. The pungent fragrance of goat and pig hangs in the still autumn air.

Ouseburn Farm was founded when residents of impoverished Byker decided to keep animals and grow food on a derelict leadworks beside the small river Ouseburn. For years this deeply tranquil place has been free to everyone, while providing work experience for adults with learning difficulties. But its humble, hand-to-mouth existence nearly came to an end five years ago when a financial crisis saw the farm threatened with closure. The community rallied round and it was saved with a crowdfunder.

“There was this huge outpouring of love and affection for the farm,” says manager Hugh Stolliday. It’s easy to see why. It’s an adorable place, the passion of its seven staff and 90 volunteers made manifest in five acres packed with neat rows of vegetables and happy animals.

Ouseburn is not alone. There are more than 50 equally lovely urban farms that add care, character and a touch of random surprise to other British cities. Each one is unique, springing organically from its neighbourhood and needs, but they all bring food production, green space, wildlife and – usually – livestock to the heart of the city.

This year is the movement’s 50th birthday, but you’ll see no razzmatazz, no government recognition and no royal visits. City farms have always led a Cinderella existence, cash-strapped and constantly imperilled by developers or council cuts. Surviving farms are nimble and adapt to what their local community requires. Today, in the midst of a cost of living crisis and a mental health epidemic, safe local places where food is produced, wildlife encouraged and animals play a therapeutic role appear to be more vital than ever.

The first city farm, in Kentish Town, was pure “serendipity”, says one of its co-founders, David Powell. London’s postwar population shrank and, by the early 1970s, whole streets of empty terraces and derelict warehouses were commonplace. Space was easy to find and utilised by groups such as Interaction, a community theatre charity that in 1972 rented a disused wood yard from Camden council. They discovered a row of Victorian stables on the site and, with characteristic creativity, borrowed some ponies and created the only indoor riding arena in London not owned by the Queen. “My father-in-law was a farmer and he donated a couple of calves and some Silkie chickens, and very quickly we acquired a free-running menagerie,” says Powell. A pub conversation led to a crocodile of pensioner-volunteers walking to the site to dig community gardens. Kentish Town city farm was born.

The founders were not publicity shy and other inner city groups were soon inspired to set up similar farms in Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham and elsewhere, bringing greenery to derelict post-industrial cityscapes and offering young people a chance to grow food and work with animals.

Over the years, many of these improbably tiny community farms have been starved of funds but, against the odds, they have endured and evolved. Fifty years on, despite a complete transformation of most inner cities, urban farms continue to perform, as Powell puts it, “the wonderful work of putting animals and people and green things together and to see what magic comes out of that”.

Kentish Town city farm today works across diverse communities, welcoming adults with additional needs, schoolchildren, nursery kids and passing visitors to help with its revamped community gardens, chickens, donkeys, two pigs, a cow and four sheep. “It’s the same as it’s always been. It’s about providing local people with a green space that they have ownership over and can participate in,” says director Eira Gibson. She is, she says, tackling the same issues as the farm’s founders did – helping people reconnect with food production and championing environmentally friendly ways of feeding ourselves. “Even though the farm has survived for the last 50 years, it’s shocking that these same issues haven’t gone away,” Gibson says.

While some city farms are care farms, with animals used purely for therapeutic purposes, in Newcastle, Ouseburn is a working farm and employs a farmer and a horticulturist, supplying vegetables to the hip Cook House restaurant next door, which sponsors the farm in return.

“A lot of places are now sanctuaries, which is great, but you have to educate people as well,” says farmer Richie Jameson, who lives with his family on a Northumberland hill-farm, but has worked on the city farm for 11 years. “It’s nice to have a finished product that people can see and eat. Now more than ever, we’ve got to look at buying locally produced meat that’s not imported.”

This year, Jameson is rearing 19 lambs, which will be taken to slaughter, providing cuts sold in the shop before Christmas. Over the years, he’s had to rescue sheep from the little river that flows through the site, haul a cow out of a housing estate and save a quail from drowning. Ferrets and a tortoise have been stolen. His biggest challenge? “People. Idiots with dogs. A lot of people don’t know how to act around animals. What surprises us is how many adults will see a cow and say, ‘Look at that horse.’ People say it must be great for the children to learn about stuff, but it’s just as much adults as well.”

The farm currently works with around 50 adults with additional needs. Small groups look after livestock in the mornings, enjoy a communal lunch – often featuring food from the gardens – and do afternoon activities, such as arts and crafts, making and baking, photography, upcycling and wood carving. Some end up with full-time jobs. In the shop and café, Daniel Sharp, who has autism, is greeting visitors and explaining the small animal collection – a random selection rescued by the farm, including Beavis the parrot, stick insects, short-tailed chinchillas and Doris the red-footed tortoise (who is a boy).

“I absolutely love working here and Hugh has said to me if I want I can have a full-time job after my apprenticeship ends,” smiles Sharp. “It’s a great place. Unlike most farms you can interact with the animals and I even have a best friend who bit me once recently. Beavis the parrot.”

Providing learning for everyone is a trait shared by Balsall Heath city farm, a mile-and-a-half – and a world away – from the flashy centre of Birmingham. On a typical Thursday, the farm hosts 10-week-old Tayah, who is here with her mum, Hetta Brookes, and enjoying the sycamore leaves fluttering overhead, George Melrose, 81, who kept the farm’s potatoes alive by watering them during the summer drought. The young and the old come together during a “tiny farmers” morning, where a group of under-fives harvest pink fir apple potatoes. A small, desiccated-looking vegetable bed features an astonishing wealth of these quirky-shaped potatoes in the sweet-scented soil. “This little group is excellent for helping the children get to know where their food comes from,” says Melrose. “It’s such a good asset for the community.”

Balsall Heath city farm opened 42 years ago on a triangle of land squeezed beside a railway line. “Don’t ask us in acres or hectares because it’s ain’t even going to be one,” says Hywel Williams, who is wearing a “Brum Forever” baseball cap and has been farm manager for more than 17 years. “But despite its size it’s much needed in the area.”

The farm, part of the larger St Paul’s Trust charity, is too small to rear livestock for meat and so its animals are for therapeutic purposes, although chicken eggs are sold to visitors (30p per egg). Volunteer chefs cook a meal twice a week, using food from the farm garden and supermarket leftovers delivered by a local charity. The National Probation Service brings offenders undertaking “community payback” at weekends.

“I love the place and I’m quite passionate about outdoor stuff – getting folk out of their houses and away from their screens,” says Williams. “Obviously, people in our wellbeing groups are mostly living alone. A lot of it is to tackle social isolation and loneliness, which has knock-on effects for people’s physical and mental health.” As well as lonely elders, the farm is “particularly” for young people, says Williams. “Children around here may never get into the countryside for a number of reasons – money, or perhaps it is seen as a white person’s place. Coming here might be the first time some children see farm animals in the flesh.”

The young farmers get to cuddle rabbits and guinea pigs. Snowy, a big lively white rabbit, tries digging a burrow in Sophia’s lap. This is a big milestone, says Sophia’s mum, Sarah Quraishi. “A couple of weeks ago she was petrified of the rabbits because they were quite big, now she’s so comfortable and really enjoying it. We’ve been coming for a few years now. It’s been really lovely to get involved with the animals. It’s not just for the children, I come here because it’s a learning experience for all of us.”

“I like the fact that my daughter can be exposed to the animals which we can only usually see in the countryside,” says Taslima Ali, here with her daughter Rukaiwa, three. “The only animals we see in the city are rats. Every child should be able to see and experience this.” For all the small successes of city farms, most have flirted with closure over the years. Some council-run farms were disposed of when austerity struck. Others, such as Newham city farm in London, have closed post-Covid, despite passionate local campaigns to save them. City farms never fit a single environmental, educational or health category, and are too small to qualify for the subsidies that support commercial farms. Their closeness to their communities has been their strength, but some supporters fear they become insular or what David Powell calls “exclusive”. Jan Burley, a local resident and volunteer at Balsall Heath for 30 years, worries that not enough people know about it. “Sometimes I say to people, ‘I’m going to the farm,’ and they say, ‘A farm in Balsall Heath?’ They didn’t know it existed.”

City farms hope that the growth of “social prescribing” – doctors prescribing courses of gardening or working with animals on a city farm as part of treatment for mental and physical ill-health – will secure their future. According to professor Mike Hardman, chair in urban sustainability at the University of Salford, social prescribing has put city farms firmly on policymakers’ radar. He cites Northern Roots in Oldham, a newer farm, which is backed by the local authority. “They’ve got that support from the politicians. There’s more interest in urban farms than there has ever been before from farm organisations and policymakers and investment. Urban farms are mentioned in food policy. I see their social, environmental, health benefits increasing and becoming more visible over the coming years.”

Even so, some vegan critics contest the benefits of city farms, arguing that they perpetuate a child’s picture-book myth of the quaint traditional farm with well-kept livestock, when the reality is meat grown in factory-farms.

“It’s a fair point,” says Gibson at Kentish Town city farm. “Our cow Shirley stands in the field farting all day. She doesn’t produce any milk. This is not an environmentally good practice, but there are benefits to our community that otherwise may not see a cow. Just understanding that the chicken you see in the farm is the same as the chicken you eat from a bucket – that’s how disconnected we are from food – is still important.” Gibson hopes her farm does not make definitive statements about whether veganism is right or wrong, but raises awareness and sparks debate. “The farm is ultimately a megaphone for the environment and I hope we’re better able to support people in making their own choices about food.”

City farms maintain that they are spaces where urban people can enrich their lives with intimate and rewarding work alongside animals and plants. “For us it’s very simple – we’re a place for growing plants and animals and most of all, people,” says Hugh Stolliday in Newcastle. In Birmingham, volunteer Kim Beverley, a former nurse, appreciates how the farm gives children hands-on experience of animals, flowers and vegetables. “We get them to help grow things and then eat them. How many children can go and collect a goose egg just after it is laid, when it is still warm? It’s a fantastic way of being.”

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