“It smells of poo, sir!” exclaims a new arrival, her school jumper clamped firmly to her nose. “Do you live here sir, with the pigs?” another will usually enquire. Groups of students visiting our small city farm in Waterloo turn up excited – shooting out of the minibus and bouncing off the five-bar gates.
Our half-acre space – flanked by high-rise flats on one side, and the main train line into Waterloo on the other – feels familiar but is also foreign. From the gate you can hear the animals in their pens. The air is – you can smell – is different. Police sirens blend with a hovering helicopter and the bleat of our pregnant ewes. It’s opposite Big Ben, sure, but it’s also a slice of rural England.
At the arrival of each group, I explain that the farm is a sanctuary, and that means a calm quiet place where everyone feels safe. I’ll tell the new young farmers that this certainly isn’t school, I’m Tim – not Sir, but that we do have boundaries so that all of us, and our animals, can be kept safe. We then sit around the table (as at Jamie’s Farm’s residential sites) to each ‘check in’ – a chance to share our feelings. This gives an interesting insight. Some score themselves highly, excited to get stuck in, while others are quiet and reluctant “I’m a three out of ten, sir” “and why do you think that is?” “I’m so tired sir – I was watching Netflix all night. I just want to go back to bed”. While sometimes it is hyperactive behaviour we find challenging, on other occasions it is the tired student – lacking energy and refusing to engage – that can be the most tough to reach.
The real value of the city farm to students – in a therapeutic sense – comes with the gardening, farming and the physical labour needed to keep our site running. Clearly defined themes on our six week programme help steer sessions. Care and nurture day will see one group checking the hens for parasites before cleaning out and bedding up their house, while another cares for the group by cooking lunch with farm produce and the eggs collected by the chicken crew. Physical and emotional strength can be explored by carrying and chopping large logs, moving water troughs and mucking out the pigs (a mighty test of emotional strength for many). The list goes on.
The garden is my own personal sanctuary, and a source of energy. If I ever I feel anxious, stressed or depressed I’ll schedule a few hours double digging a plot or weeding the courgettes. There is something about the connection to the earth, the feeling of soil between fingers and a physical toil towards something so fundamentally important as food to eat. I see this in some of the young farmers at Waterloo too. Working the soil – alongside an adult that they know feel they can trust – allows some to relax and to open up about their feelings. There’s no pressure. They can focus their eyes and energy on the task while speaking about some of the things that might be worrying them, that could be holding them back in class or at home. This is an immensely powerful tool, and it is a joy to see it working with young people in the way it does at Waterloo.
Beyond these key Jamie’s Farm elements, the city Farm had a far wider role to play. We work with two local partner academies to provide the ultimate outdoor classroom – with a barn-based theatre space and the potential to adapt any lesson plans to the outdoors.The power of city farms for working with young people has long been recognised, as has the therapeutic value of gardening and caring for any animals. But even the most quotidian of farm jobs can be jolly hard work in the middle of town; our nearest livestock vet is in Sevenoaks. And have you ever tried to take a bale of hay on the tube? I don’t recommend you try. But make the effort to overcome these hurdles, and the experience can be immensely rewarding.
Healthy eating clubs for the community – adults and kids – help connect them to food systems in a borough which is one of the most deprived in the UK, and an area where 40% of Year 6 pupils are overweight or obese. Lambeth has some 250 fast food outlets, but the kids that come to the farm often have no idea that their fried chicken comes from the kind of battery hens like the ones we rescued. Or that the pigs that go into that hot dog have a very different life to the Gloucestershire Old Spot weaners they help us feed and clean here.
Like a ‘whole school’ approach we have a ‘whole farm’ one. We try and do many different things with the young people that come, and I think much of it will have an impact. The young person who often arrives with ill-directed energy, or exhausted after his a night-long Netflix binge, will hopefully find something here that chimes with them. I’m often impressed by how much their mood has lifted by the time we sit down to share our “check out” numbers. Students share their achievements with the group – often with great eloquence – and surprise themselves with the sense of positive reward they feel.
“But what about the smell?” I ask our pig poo-phobic Year 9 as she leaves. “I can’t even notice it any more, sir.” Said like a true urban farmer.
We’re always looking for volunteers down on the farm, from mucking out the pigs to assisting with our educational groups. Contact Tim on email@example.com if you’d like to know more.
Written by Tim Dickens (Waterloo Farm Manager)
Tim is co-editor of The Land magazine, founding editor of The Brixton Blog and Bugle, and has previously worked in residential outdoor education with children and young people aged from seven to 16. He also spent 18 months delivering a major digital transformation project for the Royal Television Society. Tim has a keen interest in sustainable agriculture and grassroots growing and education projects and in his spare time can be found in the garden or volunteering at our Wiltshire and Herefordshire sites.