Farm suited to an urban lifestyle

URBAN FARMERS: Left, Sue Reddington with Victoria Burgess-Hall, a 17-year-old on work experience.  Picture: Mark Bickerdike.
URBAN FARMERS: Left, Sue Reddington with Victoria Burgess-Hall, a 17-year-old on work experience. Picture: Mark Bickerdike.
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THIRTY years ago this July, the Lord Mayor of Leeds officially opened the Meanwood Valley Urban Farm – one of the first of its kind. It seemed like a good time to ask how the books are balanced.

The front-of-house hens, which wander freely, are backed up by a couple of hundred standard hybrids laying eggs in a deep-litter barn with access to the outdoors – but not quite enough space to be called free-range. The market garden is run on organic lines but without a Soil Association certificate, which is too expensive for the turnover, and it supplies fruit and veg to a smart Leeds restaurant, The Cross Keys on Water Lane, as well as the farm’s own shop. Bees chip in honey. Two little Dexter cows used to get bulled by arrangement and produce a calf each for the market for hobby cattle, but are now semi-retired.

A handful of goats used to give milk but the expense of meeting environmental health regulations in a visitor environment became prohibitive. And the rest of the livestock – donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs and hedgehogs in need of nursing care – have more to do with the Urban than the Farm in the title.

It all about breaks even on costs if you do not count labour, which would be hard to separate out from the overall budget, says Mr Garlick. He teaches as much as he farms.

Farm director Sue Reddington is looking at a target of £359,000 for the year just started, to run 13 staff and 24 acres. Leeds Council has allocated £65,000 – 12 per cent down on last year.

“To be honest, I am delighted we got that much, in view of the £90m they have to save,” said Mrs Reddington this week.

Most of the balance will come from selling educational and social services. Ten thousand children a year visit as part of the normal curriculum. A thousand a year come for a week at a time, for remedial English and Maths combined with a bit of outdoor activity. A hundred children and young adults a year pick up some basic qualification, or at least a bit of work experience, looking after the animals, the glasshouses and the vegetable patches – and a thousand young trees on the latest eight acres to be added into the farm by Leeds Council, which remains the landlord. The saplings have already fed back into the education programme by supplying materials for manufacture of sticks and tool handles.

Meanwhile, parents looking for an outing with their own kids account for about 45,000 footfalls a year.

Urban farms became quite common for a while, although a number have closed again. ‘Care farming’ has become part of the language of the agricultural business. And education in nutrition is nowadays prime-time TV. But the Meanwood farm was among the first in all three categories.

The estates around it are much smarter now, and more connected to the world outside, than they were in the late 1970s, when teachers and social workers got the ear of an energetic local left-wing lobby called the Future Studies Centre and they all started leaning on the council to do something imaginative with a strip of derelict land alongside the Meanwood Beck – a plain little stream, still fighting off a history as a rubbish dump, which disappears under Leeds city centre on its way to the Aire.

Mrs Reddington was a welfare worker for the Leeds education department at the time. She grew up in Garforth, when it was a village outside Leeds rather than a suburb, and was shocked at the completeness of the disconnection from rural England she found in the inner city.

Behind the smart new face of Leeds, it is still there. Quite a lot of her children go on to courses in small animal care or plant growing at Leeds City College but only the odd one gets as far as Askham Bryan.

“But we make a difference to the attitude they have to farms when they do get into the country,” says Robert Paige, education officer. He was teaching kids to make their own leek and potato soup on a camp fire for 20 years before Jamie Oliver got on the bandwagon. He is also coach at the farm’s bicycle works, where kids are encouraged to build one for themselves and one for foreign aid, from scrap materials. It can be seen as a tribute to the breadth of Sue Reddington’s contacts that the old bike bits are collected by donors as various as Harrogate Rotary Club and the lads at the Meanwood Road rubbish dump, next door.

She came in as manager 25 years ago and charms both the awkward squads who turn up for training and the holders of purse strings in politics, charities and business. On top of what the farm has earned, it has raised at least a couple of million pounds in donations for capital investments.

The late Millie Benn, a distant relative of ‘Wedgie’ and one of the first members of the Urban Farm Steering Committee, published a memoir in 2000 which recalled some sly sabotage hampering their first efforts to dig a herb garden and install hens and rabbits in pens made of old bed frames.

She said: “Some people were afraid we were introducing a lot of hippies into Meanwood. Even some of the council employees were hostile. They thought the land should be ‘park land’.”

Now the farm is loved by all and immaculately kept. Even the vandals and the stray dogs have eased off a bit. Their place has been taken by roe deer, which slipped past two permanent night security staff and ate all this winter’s brassicas and swedes.

A LABOUR OF LOVE

VOLUNTEERS provide a lot of free labour. They come as individuals and in company-sponsored squads. Vodafone is sponsoring a young mum wanting to return to work, Cathryn Perkins, to run two months of activities including a Royal Wedding party on April 29.

The farm also annually organises three weeks of summer play days. Meanwood Valley Urban Farm is at LS7 2QG. Phone: 0113 262 9759. Admission charges: Adults, £1; teenagers over 12, 50p; under-12s, free. See www.mvuf.org.uk/