13 March 1998

Inner city enterprise can only help farming cause

City farms have much to

offer local people and in turn

help country people by

increasing understanding,

as Ann Rogers discovered

when she visited a busy

London farm

THIS is a working farm, declares the notice at the entrance to Freightliners Farm, a 2.5-acre (1ha) holding in the London Borough of Islington, tucked in between the Martin Luther King Adven-ture Playground, Paradise Park, two schools and a row of houses.

George Bickerdike, who is in charge of livestock there, is quick to confirm the fact and stresses that although Freight-liners has 40,000 visitors a year, it is not a zoo: "We do breed animals and they go off to market and eventually become beef, lamb or pork," he says.

In addition to the trickle of store animals from the two multi-suckler cows, one sow and handful of sheep, eggs from the farms hens, ducks and geese find strong local demand, as do home-produced honey, vegetables and herbs.

Well rotted farmyard manure is another valuable source of income. Many of the older houses in the area have big gardens, George explains, adding, "The biggest job is getting it bagged."

&#42 Brewers grains

The bags they use are those in which an important part of their feed arrives, brewers grains collected from a local pub which brews its own beer.

Freightliners Farm – its name reflecting its origins in railway goods vans behind Kings Cross station 25 years ago – is a true community enterprise. It has a management committee of local residents and the support of many local businesses.

Sandra Rutherford is the farm manager and although the enterprise has local authority core funding, she has to work hard to find funds from other sources too. George is the livestock farmworker, Martyn Higgs takes care of the horticultural activity and Tessa Chapman is the teacher.

Theres much for Tessa to do – from organising workshops or tours for some of the 80 schools which visit the farm each year, to running "crafty farm activities" for the under fives twice a week. She also runs the weekly meetings of the Science Club for eight to 13-year-olds who come to learn about farming, natural history and the environment.

The bright classroom, its walls decorated with pictures and information, is let out for childrens parties – another valuable source of income, points out Sandra. It is also home to the farms pets – some of its rabbits, a hamster, Roman snails and a cockatiel which all contribute learning opportunities.

&#42 No restrictions

But the kind of education Freightliners offers is not restricted to the classroom, or even the notices on the animal pens or display boards which include NFU promotional material for British beef.

Sandra is planning to develop a dairy enterprise with the farms half dozen goats and a Polled Dorset ewe. A small milking parlour has been set up and visitors will be able to watch milking in progress. The milk will then be made into yogurt or cheese.

"What we are trying to do is to talk to city kids about where their food comes from," says George. "We have seven 20-egg incubators which we send out to schools with sets of eggs."

His latest project is a new poultry unit. Part of it was already in use when Farmlife visited. It comprises a 9.15m x 3.65m (30ft x 12ft) field shelter intended for horses which he has adapted. The open front has been covered with weld mesh, perches and egg boxes have been fitted in one third and visitors can watch the 30 ASA Brown hens which now live there, busily scratching in straw.

The second section will house more hens, possibly young birds which the schools will hatch this spring. The third will house a mix of hens to demonstrate different breeds.

George was planning to build the unit himself, but he discovered that buying a ready-made shelter was far cheaper than buying timber by the metre. This unit replaces a range of conventional hen houses set in runs.

"City people pick up on things we dont think about really," says George. "They get worried when they see hens moulting, but no one seems concerned if the birds are paddling about in mud."

When it comes to talking about the ultimate destination of the animals children seem less concerned about death and consumption than adults, says George, who does his normal farming jobs whoever is around, even castrating. But he will also explain what he is doing and why.

Informal educating is an important part of the job for George who was born and raised on a farm and has worked on them all his life. Among the comments he has dealt with are: "I cant touch the cow, Ill get BSE," and "Hasnt that cow got a big bum?" about an animal with a full udder.

He talks with vegetarians about their avoidance of meat and quietly asks them why they are wearing leather shoes. "It sets them thinking and asking themselves why they dont eat meat," he says. "Modern farming practices" are often cited as a reason but George explains that most farmers treat their animals well for the simple reason that is the way to get the best out of them, and he will talk about abattoirs too.

Freightliners, which is a member of the National Federation of City Farms, gives much to the local community, including confidence-building work experience for people with special needs and unique opportunities for blind people to discover plants and animals through touch and feel.

It also gives a lot to the countryside by educating consumers present and future. "The public will probably dictate what happens in farming in the future," says George, adding "Its nice to see kids seeing things that I have taken for granted all my life," as he hurries off to hire a trailer to take pigs to market and a cow to run with a bull at another open farm.

Right: Farm manager Sue Rutherford and George Bickerdike, who is in charge of livestock, in the new poultry unit. Below: A polled Dorset lamb is brought out to meet a young visitor.