Meanwood Valley Urban Farm – Fighting for Survival

Meanwood Valley Urban Farm was first established in the 80’s. The 24-acre city farm is in the heart of Meanwood.

It is a working farm with animals, a market garden and an environmentally friendly visitors’ centre. Unfortunately, like so many other organisations, the farm was forced to closed in March when government lockdown was enforced. Since then, it has been struggling to survive. 

I spoke with Adam Ogilvie, CEO, about their survival strategies, plans for reopening and their hopes for the future.

Challenges the farm has faced as a result of COVID19 

From school groups learning about animal husbandry, and volunteers managing the market garden, to families relaxing in Barn Café, the on-site social enterprise, Meanwood farm is usually bustling with activity. But, at the end of March this year, the farm closed its doors in light of the growing COVID19 crisis. 

I asked Adam what impact this forced closure has had on the farm. Being forced to close has resulted in a ‘massive impact on income, with losses of about £15,000 per month’. He explained that these losses have occurred as a result of ‘not having admissions to the farm, not being able to rent out rooms, and having no income from schools or other external groups’. 

What has the farm done to stay alive?

In light of these challenges, I asked what he and the rest of the team on the farm have done to survive. 

Adam said that their priority has always been to ‘keep the animals and market garden safe’. Although many members of the team have been furloughed to ensure the farm survives, a ‘small group of staff have stayed on site to keep the farm secure and working’. They have been grateful for a ‘small pool of volunteers who have helped with the animals and market garden during COVID19’.

To be able to fund the work and pay the small group of staff still on site, Adam quickly set up a Crowdfunder campaign. The campaign has been successful, and Adam was keen to say thank you to all those who supported the campaign. He went on to tell me that he and the rest of the team are ‘exceedingly grateful for their support’. Adam also wanted to say thank you to Leeds City Council for their ongoing support.   

The community supported agriculture project 

The farm has developed several initiatives to support themselves financially throughout the uncertainties. I mentioned that I had seen a post on Twitter about the farm’s community supported agriculture project. Adam explained that ‘the project launched recently and the first veg box was sent out yesterday! Members can sign up and then they get a share, a veg box. They can also come and help in the market garden’. He went on to say that the market garden is ‘chemical free, and the team use traditional horticultural methods that they want to develop and share’. 

Personally, I’m keen to get involved with this initiative as I am passionate about supporting local businesses, eating and shopping locally – and love being outside. I asked Adam about plans for the scheme’s future. He explained that he and the rest of the farm team ‘want to develop the programme. In the future we want to be more involved in food growing in the City. We feel that it is important to contribute to this agenda across Leeds. We want to reduce food poverty and are hoping to explore this moving forward.’

Has the community supported the farm with initiatives during COVID19?

In addition to farm led initiatives, several community projects have launched to raise funds and support the farm during the pandemic. Adam said that Touchdown (a Leeds based mental health charity) had developed a creative competition, with profits being given to the farm. The initiative is still live until the end of June. Other initiatives include the sale of handmade cards, unique printed t-shirts and a community developed activity book, led by local illustrator Marta Jaskot

Adam said that during the pandemic, the farm has focussed on their online and virtual content, and they want to keep moving forward with this when things return to ‘normal’. He told me ‘we were approached by Callum, from a Leeds based drone and 360 video company, to develop free virtual tours of the Farm. The tours are available on the website’. The tours, which can be seen here (https://www.mvuf.org.uk/virtual-tour/) were created by Dronetrics. The virtual tours are a great way for people who are unable to get to the Farm, to explore and see what it has to offer. The aim is to make more videos in the future.  

During the lockdown, the Farm has been hosting a live event each week on their popular Facebook page. This week’s event was ‘live sheep shearing, which was well received and has developed lots of content’. More live events are planned. To allow for this, Adam explained that they are ‘working on a number of grants and funding bids, focussed on getting equipment, like cameras’.

Another area of innovation that Adam mentioned is at-home education. The farm usually hosts school groups and teaches children about farming, horticulture and sustainability. As these groups aren’t able to access the farm at the moment, the farm has developed ‘worksheets for children to use at home. They are educational and based on the units that we usually work through on the farm. They have been made to be done at home.’ In the short term, these resources could be great for families, seeing that schools are not set to go back. In the longer term, the Farm will add to these resources, so that families can learn together about farming in the City. 

The workbooks are here.

What plans do you have for the farm?

As it is important to keep positive at the moment, I asked about plans for the future. In addition to progressing the initiatives that started during the lockdown (e.g. the community supported agriculture project and the virtual tours), Adam said that they have been reaching out to the community to hear what they want.

‘We have a public opinion survey to gather ideas from the community, to see what people’s views are of the farm, even if they haven’t been yet, and what they think an urban farm should look like in 2020 and beyond.

The survey is here.

We also have service user surveys so we can hear what they want. One is for our users who have learning disabilities and usually come to the Farm to learn about horticulture and agriculture. One is for  those involved in the Reconnect programme.’ 

How are you going to celebrate your anniversary? 

This year was supposed to be the 40th anniversary of the Farm, with a host of celebrations. However, as a result of the lockdown, it has been put on hold. But Adam said that they are planning to use the 40th year as an ‘opportunity to learn and explore future opportunities, to use blue sky thinking’. Which is how the findings from the community surveys will help the Farm to know what direction to take. 

The 40th anniversary celebrations will still happen, but they will likely be extended. ‘We will hopefully look to hold a virtual summer fayre, and then when we can, we will organise a get together for the community, with food, music and lots of people’. 

Sparking the start of new things, Adam said that when the Farm is able to open fully, they will celebrate their 40th anniversary with new opportunities. He said that they ‘want to get the farm animated. We are hoping to host classes for people to attend, like basket weaving. We will be sending out calls for artisans and teachers to use the rooms and outside spaces we have here’. 

Do you have any plans for re-opening the farm this summer? 

The question on everyone’s lips is when things might return to normal. I asked about the plans for the reopening of the farm to the public. Adam said, ‘We are hoping to reopen in July. We haven’t set a firm date yet because we need to see what happens. But we will post updates on our Facebook page, so people should look there’. Adam went on to say that when the Farm does reopen in a few weeks, the on site social enterprise, ‘Barn Café, will also reopen as a takeaway, so it is important people support them, too’. 

If you would like to donate towards the survival of Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, you can do so here.

Photograph by Mark Wheelwright.

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