How this Sheffield farm has been at the heart of the community for 40 years

Unlike your traditional farm, Heeley City Farm in Sheffield is a community hub, which has been supporting vulnerable people and animals for nearly 40 years and is now one of the most popular visitor attractions in the city.
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In July this year, Heeley City Farm will celebrate a huge milestone as the registered charity turns 40 years old.

The farm began life on a former derelict housing site in 1981 and has grown organically from its early days with a shed and £25 in the bank to become a well-loved part of the Heeley landscape, providing beautiful green spaces, education, employment, and training opportunities.

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In the 1960s/70s, Sheffield City Council agreed on a controversial by-pass, and even though the plans were later scrapped, houses in the area were demolished, leaving empty land behind.

Frankie Tarantini feeding the animals at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris EtchellsFrankie Tarantini feeding the animals at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris Etchells
Frankie Tarantini feeding the animals at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris Etchells

Heeley Residents Association wanted to see the land used to make Heeley a better place to live and developed the idea of turning the land into a city farm, which gradually won support.

Work began on the site in July 1981, and forty years later, it is a well-established community, not for profit charity and visitor attraction based on a working farm a mile from Sheffield City centre.

Staff and volunteers from Heeley City Farm work with young people, adults with learning disabilities and local communities across Sheffield to promote regeneration, environmental education, energy efficiency and health and well-being.

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Logan, aged 10, who has volunteered at the farm for over two years, said: “The farm helped me with my talking… helping me improve my sociability skills and my confidence around new people. Without the farm, I do not believe I would be in the place I am today and would not be the person I am.”

Stuart Roome working in the garden centre at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris EtchellsStuart Roome working in the garden centre at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris Etchells
Stuart Roome working in the garden centre at Heeley City Farm. Picture: Chris Etchells

Andrew Pearse, communications manager at Heeley City Farm, said: “The farm is a multi-faceted organisation and started from small beginnings.

“We have sessions every day for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities, so we have over sixty people a week come down, and it has been like a family over the pandemic there was a lot of tears when people couldn’t come to the farm.

"We provide alternative provisions for younger people from primary to secondary school age where young people who are not getting along with standard education come to us for a different type of education using the animals and all that kind of stuff.

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He added: "We also have a dementia department that supports carers and people living with dementia, specifically people with rarer forms of dementia. It was actually set up by my brother and myself.

Heeley City Farm. Pictured is Rachel Gilbert with one of their goats. Picture: Chris EtchellsHeeley City Farm. Pictured is Rachel Gilbert with one of their goats. Picture: Chris Etchells
Heeley City Farm. Pictured is Rachel Gilbert with one of their goats. Picture: Chris Etchells

"We cared for our mum, and through our experiences, we've kind of realized that we have some knowledge that could help other people, so we're trying to do that."

As a certified rare breeds centre, Heeley City Farm provides a home to a wide variety of animals from the large to the very small.

Animals here include endangered breeds of Goats, Pigs, Horses, and sheep as well as Rabbits, Ferrets, Guinea Pigs and Chinchilla.

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There is also an array of birds on the farm, some familiar and some rare breeds and a range of exotic animals, including two tarantulas, a snake, lizards and a Giant African Land Snail.

Andrew said: “We’re a certified rare breed centre, so most of the animals at the farm are nearly extinct species.

"The cows that we have at the farm, there’s less than 150 in the world. Same for some of the pigs. The goats as well we've got three different types of goats, and two of them are on the rare breeds list. "A lot of ducks and chickens are also on the rare breed list.”

The farm grows food organically across multiple sites, which is used in food banks, other organisations, and in the newly refurbished café.

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It has been growing local food using organic practices for the last 15, and volunteers currently manage over 20 local food growing sites in Sheffield, including school and community gardens, church land, fire stations, and private land.

Horticulture trainees, staff and volunteers manage the organic vegetable gardens at Meersbrook Park, Wortley Walled Gardens and Firth Park allotments.

In 2011, the farm was awarded the Sheffield Telegraph Environment Innovation Award for its local food growing work, in recognition of the scale and scope of their projects, producing and distributing increasing amounts of fruit and vegetables each year.

Heeley City Farm is a registered charity and does not receive funding as a working rare breeds farm – funding for the care of the animals relies entirely on the generosity of the farms' supporters.

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Throughout the pandemic, donations have fallen due to the farm being closed, but they have managed to ride the storm and survive.

Andrew said: “The actual running of the farm site and the feeding of the animals and care and all that kind of stuff, there's no funding for that hardly. The problem with the funding is that you're fighting other amazing organizations for funds from the limited amount of money available, which is always quite a sad kind of prospect.

“Donations to the farm are massively important, and without the community spirit that we have around the farm, we wouldn't have been able to last this long.

“At the beginning of the first lockdown, when there was the massive toilet roll shortage, someone stole all our toilet rolls at the farm. We put something out there saying, please don't steal, because we’re a charity and there was a queue of people coming just bringing toilet rolls from their own house, which is just amazing, and I think that kind of sums up what the farm does for people and how people give back to the farm as well; it's quite amazing and a somewhat unique thing.”

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Volunteers are also key to the day to day operation of Heeley City Farm; people aged eight upwards are invited to work in a number of different jobs, including farm animal care and site maintenance, which involves feeding, watering, housing and moving animals as well as egg collection, grooming, health checks, safety checks, cleaning out animal housing, sweeping, cleaning and tidying.

Andrew said: "The need for volunteers on our sites is massive.

“We have volunteers in every aspect of the farm, whether it's washing pots in the cafe, helping with the garden centre to watering flowers or site maintenance.

"I started at the farm as a volunteer 12 years ago, just doing their publicity and posters because I've got a design degree. At the time, my brother was the youth training manager, I was unemployed, and I'd just been caring for my mum, so he asked if I could create posters to get younger people to come to the farm, which I did because I also needed a job, and i was paid one day a week to do some work. Now I'm one of the few full-time members of staff here.

"Becoming a volunteer gives people vital skills.

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"We also have a lot of people who are socially isolated that come to the farm, and that alleviates what comes with being socially isolated or social anxiety.

"For example, there's one chap who started coming to the farm quite a few years ago, and he had some medical conditions, and he just ended up watering the plants, and then the farm paid him to learn all about composting. He became our compost manager, and now he's the head gardener at one of the NHS sites sub-council. There's a lot of stories like that."

He added: “Some people just want to learn about gardening, so they come down on a Saturday to one of our sessions. It's just open to anyone no matter what kind of situation they might be living in or what their needs might be.

“We try and help out when we can and people come down to our volunteer sessions for a variety of different reasons, it could be anything from just boredom, to wanting to get out of the house to help overcome social anxiety, or wanting to learn something, so the scope is quite vast.

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To celebrate the farm’s 40 years, they are asking people to send in pictures and stories of Heeley City Farm over the years, and people can also send a ‘Happy Birthday’ message on social media pages.

Sue Pearson, Chief Executive of Heeley City Farm, said: “The pandemic means our planned big celebration events will happen once restrictions are lifted.

"Until then, we are celebrating online by sharing pictures from our vast photo archive of the farm ‘past and present’ and appealing for your stories and pictures to share too."