Seeds of success

From humble beginnings, operating from two old caravans and bed frames for fencing, Meanwood Valley Urban Farm – voted a firm favourite recently by Royal organic guru, Prince Charles – has grown to a major centre for community and environmental work. Now the last piece in its £1 million development jigsaw could soon be in place. Angela Barnes reports.

Going back a decade or two when an urban inner city farm was proposed for Meanwood, some people were afraid they would be introducing a lot of hippies into the area. Residents were also dismayed by the volume of traffic that would inevitably be attracted.

But through sheer Yorkshire grit and determination the project was to turn into a prized possession for Leeds, praised sky high recently by Royalty. Now the icing could soon be firmly on the cake if a major financial goal – the final piece in its 1m development jigsaw is secured. The announcement is expected within weeks and hopefuls say "It looks promising".

Inner city decline and dereliction in the 1970s prompted groups of people nationally to improve and manage under-used derelict land for the benefit of the local community. It led to the development of the City Farm movement.

Meanwood Valley was an attractive site – it had a green corridor linking countryside to the inner city. With the support of Leeds City Council and enthusiastic volunteers (two of whom were recruited via Leeds Civic Trust and are still actively involved today, Millie Benn and Robert Collins), Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, a registered charity, was officially opened in 1980.

Millie, a retired teacher, now in her nineties, recalls: "In October 1979, we had heard that the Inner City Fund had offered us 5,000 to start, and that they would consider further funding. It was not until the following year that we actually signed the lease – on April 1. We wondered if there was any significance in the date! Were we fools to undertake such an enterprise?"

The farm was very child-centred in those days. Paul Hand, in charge of the market garden, organised garden plots for the local youngsters; the farm manager also encouraged their help. "There were regular times for them to come. They helped with haymaking and feeding the animals. When we acquired our second caravan it was known as 'the kids' room.' I remember taking scrap paper for them to draw on and I told them stories. I was once walking down Meanwood Road when one of the children shouted to me from his back garden: 'Miss, are you going to tell us the end of that story today?' These were good things that we have never repeated," says Millie. But now, visitors benefit in all sorts of other ways.

Convenience

No-one could have envisaged how the project would grow. "We had to face a good deal of hostility. We had no piped water for two and a half years. At first we had no night watchman, so we depended on volunteers. I spent one night in the caravan – my companion took the torch to go to the loo (a sentry box affair near the market garden) – she came back saying it had disappeared! The next day I found it had been moved to the next caravan for greater convenience!" adds Millie.

One early member of the farm, Lavinia Heap, once commented: "I do not agree with a tendency to put our workers on the same lines as industrial workers, that is 40 hours and no responsibility. I prefer the old way of the farm worker, saying – animals and plants cannot be left at holidays and weekends."

Thanks to staff, volunteers and the hundreds of young people who are all part of the urban farm team, this is the order of the day – and far more besides.

Urban Farm director, Sue Remmington, MBE, feels passionately: "Inner city children's access to green space is critical in providing something secure and hopefully pleasurable, sometimes when lives are very insecure. What I try to do each year is raise funds to improve the site and its facilities, and to deliver training.

"In addition to agriculture, horticulture and maintenance, we teach numeracy and literacy. We provide a positive experience to all different groups of trainees.

"Nursery groups up to primary school children come to the education team, high school pupils come to Re-connect, for those who are on the verge of social exclusion; 18 to 24-year-olds come on a New Deal package, aimed at the long term unemployed and we also have a programme for adults with disabilities.

"Last week alone we had 25 to 30 people a day on one programme or another. They learn how to grow, how to care, how to read and write, they learn about believing in themselves, about respect and about their natural surroundings. In the case of our children, they learn to play.

"Our rewards are when trainees come back to visit and we see that their lives have moved on – and some of their lives are unbelievable.

"One young man wrote to me from Armley Jail. He was homeless when he came out and came here. So many young people don't have families or family support. It makes you feel privileged that you have had it.

"This farm wouldn't be here without Leeds City Council and we couldn't survive without the help of our large band of volunteers. We have contacts with social workers and furniture stores. Friends contribute to our store of clothes and our cafe (with fully trained chef] offers reduced price lunch."

Confidence

Sarah Wilkinson is 17. "The first time I came to Meanwood Valley Urban Farm I thought it would be a load of rubbish. It's not. It's brilliant. I was working with animals and making new friends. I really enjoyed it. When I was told I had to leave because my time was up, I got very upset and kept coming back to visit.

"I got a job elsewhere but in the end, things didn't work out. Since I came back to the farm, I have built up my confidence. I am able to do office work which I always wanted to do and soon I am going training in business administration. I wouldn't have been able to do this without the staff's help. I don't want to leave the farm but now I think that I need to move up in the world, and that's what I'm going to do."

Meanwood Valley Urban Farm attracts around 45,000 visitors a year. "It first started with a small selection of animals. I came in December 1986 and the drive was still to be made up. However, they had got a little hut at that stage.

"We catered for youngsters from the immediate areas. I visited all the local schools and worked closely with nearby families. Some of their children are 17, 18 and 19 now. They come to me and say, 'Sue, do you remember when I was your junior ranger?'

"We tend to grab them when they are younger as the farm is on their doorstep. They ask me, 'What shall we do?' In addition to farm activities, we have organised football coaching for them, via the Tenants Group. Meanwood Boys was founded last year."

Life down on the farm is hectic. The 14 acre site boasts 50 plus sheep (some rare breeds), 200 poultry, eight goats, 20 pigs, two cows in calf, two donkeys fostered from a sanctuary in Devon, waterfowl, guinea pigs and rabbits with their own pipe-like tunnels leading underground. "It's like Teletubby land," says Sue. "The children love it.

"Students look after the animals, grooming, cleaning, feeding and learning to care and feel responsible for them. They also learn how to prepare land. We hold the Soil Association Symbol and are a member of the Organic Farm Network. Our gardens have wide pathways enabling access to all. We grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and plants. Allotments are provided to the local community. We also have our own honey. A volunteer looks after the hives. We don't survive without help."

Support however, is something the urban farm can boast across the spectrum. "We raised half a million pounds for an eco-friendly EpiCentre at the top of the site, complete with turf roof, passive solar heating and composting toilets, which opened in 1999, and which offers the chance to learn more about environmental issues such as waste, energy, transportation, water, the natural environment and growing organic food in an imaginative, fun way.

On the education side, the farm worked with 15,000 children alone last year.

"We also opened a new play area in August for young children visiting with their families. Today, we hope we are near to celebrating our final goal – a target 478,804 needed for the re-development of the lower section of the farm."

Money has come from small donations to 1,500 from the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, 50,000 from the Local Regeneration Fund and a recent 226,237 Millennium Commission Enhancement Grant. The total to date, from August 5 is 278,852. "Now we are awaiting news of a final 200,000 Biffaward (landfill money). We should know of the decision within weeks," says Sue.

"In this section we need animal housing (two storeys with a base for agricultural trainees upstairs), a honey production area, a new bridge over Meanwood Beck, refurbishment of the cafe, shop, offices and training rooms. The cobbled yard is not very good for wheelchairs so this will be levelled round the edges.

"We are hoping to start the work in December, to be complete by December 2004.

"This will be the last piece of the jigsaw and if it comes up trumps, we can say, well done."

angela.barnes@ypn.co.uk