Star Interview: All change on Sheffield inner-city farm as new chief steps up

Sue Pearson, chief executive of Heeley City Farm in Sheffield. Picture: Marie Caley
Sue Pearson, chief executive of Heeley City Farm in Sheffield. Picture: Marie Caley

“I had a dream last night where charities were suddenly exempted from VAT, and it solved all our problems,” says Sue Pearson.

Such are the night-time imaginings of the new chief executive of Heeley City Farm in Sheffield. Even in her sleep she’s seeking fresh ways forward for the four-acre site, an urban haven created – lest it be forgotten – on land once earmarked for a bypass.

Sue Pearson and John Le Corney at Heeley City Farm in Sheffield. Picture: Marie Caley

Sue Pearson and John Le Corney at Heeley City Farm in Sheffield. Picture: Marie Caley

“People love the farm,” she reflects, after walking past busy scenes of staff working on the vegetable patches and tending to the menagerie of animals – rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, goats and pigs all present and correct. “Some have come here after being kicked out of school. Their lives have been turned round, they qualify as a vet, physiotherapist or social worker, and then they come back. We’ve had a lot of goodwill over the years.”

For the past 37 years the place has been run by John Le Corney who, after being made redundant by British Steel, built the venture into a business with a £950,000 annual turnover, 45 employees and 250 volunteers. Despite handing the reins to Sue aged 68, he isn’t completely retiring. His role of chief executive emeritus will entail leading Heeley’s heritage activities, as well as the local food teams, which grow produce on more than 20 plots throughout Sheffield.

But Sue’s expertise lies in generating income. On the one hand, it remains a free attraction – a habitual port of call for families with young children looking for a pleasant day out – but the enterprise has a much wider remit. It supports projects with dementia sufferers, gives placements to people with learning disabilities and maintains the South Yorkshire Energy Centre, a facility that demonstrates how people can heat their homes efficiently.

“Austerity has taken its toll on the public, and in turn the voluntary sector is finding it can’t make ends meet, because traditional sources of grant or contract income just aren’t enough any more,” she says, gently but sincerely. “Costs are going up.”

John accompanies Sue at a picnic table near the farm’s vegetarian café, a longstanding money-spinner alongside the farm’s garden centre.

What prompted the handover?

“It just seems like the right time,” John offers. “It’s much better to go when everything is going well, rather than get the farm into another crisis and walk out in the middle of it.”

Sue isn’t a stranger to the farm; she was the chair of its board of directors from 2004 until May, but her appointment still took three years to plan. “I’m learning from all John’s years of experience and skills, but also bringing a fresh pair of eyes,” she says. “Some things I know I want to keep – the culture of the farm, the feel you get when you’re here, and that it’s an open and inclusive site. We do welcome people who’ve got a lot of problems in some way or another. We’re at the forefront, really, of trying to address some of society’s current problems – such as the fact we’re an ageing population. We’re getting more socially isolated as we get older.”

It is, agrees John, a matter of identifying the areas of greatest need. “We’re with dementia where we were with cancer 30 years ago, you’d got the ‘big C’ and you were dead within six months,” he says. “We’re on a learning process, through sufferers coming here or us taking our animals into care homes. Ditto with young people and mental health.”

Sue adds: “I think what John’s done really well over the years is anticipate society’s problems, and try and find solutions. Where I think we’re going now is we’re contributing more to the research behind that.”

Partnerships have been struck with both of Sheffield’s universities – one Sheffield University scheme, focusing on methods of growing food without soil, involves connecting a fish tank to a bed of tomatoes lined with what look like ceramic baking beans. Waste from the fish fertilises the plants, which in turn send back clean water to the tank.

“There’s a recognition now that charities like ours in Sheffield are really contributing to understanding better what improves people’s quality of life,” Sue says. “People are coming to us with quite complex needs. It might be fuel poverty, mental health or unemployment, but the activities people can access here, whether it’s helping out in the café or growing seedlings in the polytunnels, are not really the point. It’s what they get out of it.”

This is all hard to quantify, she admits.

“I can feel it, tangibly, when I’m here and see it in action. But funders and commissioners like to see it all mapped out neatly on paper. ‘Distance travelled’, they like that – where was this person on their journey when they came to the farm, and where are they now. We’ve got measurement tools for that.”

Sue, 55, was previously a manager at Voluntary Action Sheffield, and before that held an equally senior role with Sheffield Cubed, which merged with VAS. She grew up in Burngreave, went to Myers Grove School and then studied languages at Leeds University. A career in academic publishing introduced her to books about the environment; this led to a 16-year spell with The Conservation Volunteers, a national charity. Married, she has two sons, Stephen, 28, and Jamie, 17.

Where John’s approach might have been strident, she hopes to be quietly persuasive.

“Some local charities in Sheffield have folded recently,” she reasons. “If the state can’t afford to fund things properly anymore, and charities are picking up that need and resourcing it by hook or by crook, then the state is being subsidised. And that’s not a sustainable way forward. It just needs to be spoken about, and not be the elephant in the room.”

Sheffield Council no longer provides a grant, and one large sixth form college sends students to work with the animals, without giving a donation. “In the past we’ve done things because it’s the right thing to do. But somebody, somewhere, is not resourcing that properly.”

The Heeley Festival recently attracted 3,500 visitors and there was ‘about 30 quid in the donation box’, Sue adds. “It’s never easy. I don’t want to get into whinging mode.”

There is, she emphasises, a strategy in the form of a business plan for the next three to five years. Refurbishments are being considered and new projects are taking shape, including an initiative in Gleadless Valley aimed at enriching people’s diets with fruit and vegetables.

“I’m very excited, and genuinely up for this challenge. I hope we never lose that sense of how lucky we are.”

'We're still amazed'

Heeley City Farm sprang up on land where houses once stood and residents endured more than a decade of worry over a proposed bypass.

The road would have run through the area, parallel with London Road, but the idea was dropped in 1978. The blighted homes were not eligible for improvement grants, so were pulled down over a three-year period.

The council suggested using the land for light industry, but the community had a greater vision.

“They stood together,” says John Le Corney. “They had a vested interest in seeing something here.”

The notion of a city farm was dreamed up by the Heeley Residents Association, and work began on site in July 1981.

“It just happened,” says John. “We’re still amazed.”

Trainees, staff and volunteers also manage organic vegetable gardens at Meersbrook Park, Wortley Walled Gardens and Firth Park allotments. The last remaining terraced home that evaded the bulldozers now houses the South Yorkshire Energy Centre, and the farm is open all year round, except Christmas Day.