A growing reputation

SARAH Hardy is pondering Heeley City Farm’s history in her solar and wind-powered office full of bicycles and wellingtons. The sound of chickens, ducks and farming teenagers can be heard outside.

SARAH Hardy is pondering Heeley City Farm’s history in her solar and wind-powered office full of bicycles and wellingtons. The sound of chickens, ducks and farming teenagers can be heard outside.

“We started out with a few animals and chickens, a hut and somewhere to grow vegetables,” she says.

“Now we have 100,000 visitors a year as well as over 1,000 young people working as volunteers or on placements, and over 200 adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.

“We have 16 full-time and 60 part-time staff, and hundreds of adult volunteers who are unemployed, have mental health problems, low self-esteem or just want to get into one of the areas that the farm promotes. A lot of them then get jobs with us,” she adds, “including me.”

If you ask any of the workers at the internationally-renowned shining example of city farming on the Heeley hillside, they’ll often seem slightly stunned by the story that began in a row of lock-up garages as a project to help train local children until the 1980s recession ended.

Teaching young people how to farm on the site of demolished back-to-back inner-city houses was seen as slightly mad in 1981.

It’s Heeley City Farm’s 30th birthday this summer and Sarah and her colleagues are gearing up for a year of celebrations.

This Saturday will see the farm’s Spring Fayre with new lambs, stalls and free entertainment, then on April 10 and during the Easter holidays there’ll be family ‘fuel-busting’ days at the farm’s Energy House, and in May a range of activities during Environment Weeks, including an open day at the farm’s northern annexe at Wortley Walled Garden.

“It’s a massive achievement to get to 30 years,” says Sarah. “We’ve had some really tough times but we’re still here and offering a valuable service to Heeley and Sheffield.”

That service is sometimes misunderstood, she adds. The visitor attraction status is important, as is the working farm with pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens and assorted wildfowl. But what’s often overlooked, she says, is the work with young people who are having problems at school, and with adults with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

“The animals are cute and they’re the draw but they’re also the springboard for everything else. I started here as a volunteer and what I liked was the whole ethos of the farm, the environmental education and promotion, and the inclusion of people from sections of society that usually get cast aside.

“You can’t just cast them out and say they’re just bad children and can’t do anything. Instead the farm nurtures them and make them part of a family, part of a community, and makes them feel they do have things to offer.”

So the farm offers a place for young and old to promote local farming and food growing to the rest of the city. Recent projects include fuel poverty work with older people, outreach work reclaiming abandoned quadrangles in primary schools as kitchen gardens, a heritage project recreating an iron age roundhouse at the farm, oral history sessions collecting stories from former farm workers and volunteers that will go into a 30th birthday book and a wildlife conservation area being set up by a teenager who’s been working at the farm since he was 12.

“You could say the world has caught up with us, because we were one of the original instigators of all this before it was fashionable.

“The farm was built on ‘big society’ principles when local people got together, fought and defeated a road plan that would rip their community apart and started the farm to continue to keep that spirit going. We, and other organisations, have helped thousands of people to help themselves.

“The public doesn’t need politicians who are trying to score points to tell them to do that and it doesn’t need to be measured or have targets put on it. It’s been going on here for 30 years and will continue to do so long after David Cameron has gone.”

lwww.heeleyfarm.org.uk. Former workers and volunteers can add their voice to the 30th anniversary book by contacting s.hardy@heeleyfarm.org.uk or calling 2580482.