We have ponies, pigs, goats and cows and an aviary with many kinds of birds. We have fluffy animals and reptiles, and, of course, Kevin the tortoise."
Stonebridge City Farm is an inner-city farm located in one of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, St Ann’s in Nottingham. Set up over 40 years ago, the farm is run as a community charity with a core focus of providing fun, free, inspiring activities for local people.
Stonebridge is a hugely popular visitor centre with paddocks, aviaries and barns full of fascinating fauna – from goats to guinea pigs to meerkats! However, far more than that they offer a host of educational and volunteering opportunities, as well as specialist support for young people, people with mental health challenges, and people with learning disabilities.
We recently took the chance to interview Peter Armitage, Chief Executive at the farm about their vibrant volunteer community, the incredible impact they are having in their community – and of course, their scaly and fluffy friends.
Tell us about Stonebridge City Farm – what is your mission and how do you go about achieving it?
“The aim of the farm is to improve the wellbeing of our community – helping to increase independence and social inclusion and helping people develop the skills and confidence to enter further education and employment.
“Firstly, Stonebridge City Farm is a free to enter visitor centre based in a residential area in the heart of Nottingham. Not charging an entrance fee is absolutely vital: it is part of the inclusive and accessible value that we promote. We welcome in excess of 60,000 visitors per year. Many visitors come once per week or more. Our core visitors are young families, but it is an opportunity for people of all ages and needs to be able to come and enjoy the animals, gardens and play area in a safe, welcoming and relaxed environment without worrying about how much it is going to cost them.
“Secondly, we have a volunteer support centre – we simply couldn’t run the charity without our volunteers. We currently average 150 volunteers per week providing 1,000 hours between them. Many of our volunteers have learning difficulties or are facing mental health challenges. We provide them with work and skills-based opportunities designed to give them respect, increase their skills, and reduce isolation.
“Thirdly, we run an education centre. Here we host visits from schools, enabling school children to come to learn about the environment, natural life and farm life. We also support work experience students and work with a local college to help them deliver animal care courses.”
You regularly emphasise the role and value of your volunteers. Can you tell us about how you go about recruiting, engaging, and retaining volunteers?
“Working with our animals is a huge attraction to our volunteers. We have ponies, pigs, goats and cows and an aviary with many kinds of birds. We have fluffy animals and reptiles, and, of course, Kevin the tortoise! Had you been on the farm two days ago, you’d have been able to watch a calf being born and the goats are going to give us some kids in the next few weeks. Stonebridge City Farm is an inspiring environment to be in.
“However, it’s not just about working with animals. Volunteering gives many people a real sense of value and self-esteem. Volunteers tell us about the sense of meaning and purpose they get from volunteering with us; this can hugely benefit people’s mental health.
“Others join to learn specific skills. We try to provide individualised support to our volunteers where we can. For example, there is a volunteer who has been with us for a number of years who had to drop out of education at an early stage, had started a family and had been unable to progress into employment. She had many barriers to overcome; things that most people take for granted. We lent her a laptop through our loan scheme and taught her computer and internet skills. She has since achieved English and Maths qualifications and is on her way to further education. She suffers from depression and anxiety and the volunteering itself also helps her build confidence and self-esteem.”
You are a big advocate of partnership working. Tell us about how partnership working has benefitted the farm and its community?
“We are a community charity. Community for us is about people, inclusivity, and accessibility. We look to work with partners who provide something that we feel we can support or who can support our people. Our partners include groups offering music workshops for families, literacy classes for young people, and English classes.
“We liaise a lot with other organisations, social care, and charities. We don’t want to replicate or replace the work of other organisations. We want to help people access the support they need through becoming brokers for them.
“We work particularly closely with organisations who support young people who are vulnerable to crime, as well as ex-offenders. We have partnered with an organisation called Skill Mill who supports ex-offenders into future employment through teaching them work skills. We also work closely with Nottinghamshire Police to support young people who are victims of crime or who are more likely to fall into crime into crime due to their life or living circumstances. For example, we run activity days in which the police bring drones and off-road bikes, and talk to the young people about the support they may be able to provide them in future. Many of the young people go on volunteer at the farm. We’ve run three of these sessions and three quarters of participants have asked to volunteer!”
We are a community charity. Community for us is about people, inclusivity, and accessibility".
Tell us about how you have benefitted from your Locality membership?
“We’ve worked with Locality in one form or another since 2019. At the time, we had financial struggles and we reached out for advice. Locality helped us take action to improve our operations and our financial performance. An important part of this was advice on upskilling our board, so that they were equipped to face the challenges of running a charity.
“I see Locality as a resource centre. Locality are just a phone call or an email away– and there is a wealth of advice, knowledge and resources available.
“There are opportunities to talk through issues and share with other organisations who are going through similar challenges. Through talking to other charity leaders, I have realised that, while each circumstance is unique, there are a lot of shared experiences we can learn from.”
What does the future hold for Stonebridge City Farm?
“Being a community charity is about listening to local people, understanding what they value, need and want, and making sure we’re providing something that we know is meaningful to them.
“We want to be able to produce more public benefit. This means being able to provide more for more visitors, more for more volunteers, and greater employment opportunities at the farm itself. This means we will need to grow and expand.”
What are the main challenges you face in achieving this?
“At present, physical capacity is our main issue. We welcome 60,000 visitors a year and have 150 volunteers on site per week – we are getting close to reaching the limit for what we are able to deliver in this space.
“One solution we are looking at is increasing our digital capacity and using the digital opportunity to its fullest. We started to deliver resources online for school children during lockdown and are looking at developing an online retail capacity.”
The mental health benefits of working with animals, connecting with nature, and having a sense of meaning are well documented. Can you give us a message for Mental Health Awareness week?
“This year, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness. I would encourage people to look at opportunities in their local community to get involved, work alongside other people and have some fun! Stonebridge City Farm is one of those places that can help.”
How can people get involved or support the work of the farm?
“The easiest way is to go to our website (www.stonebridgecityfarm.com) and look up the volunteering opportunities. The application process is explained there.”
To find out more about Stonebridge City Farm, visit: stonebridgecityfarm.com/
To find out more about Locality membership, visit: locality.org.uk/membership/
Hear volunteers tell us about why they love working on the farm: https://youtube.com/shorts/MLZhIA5yHbc?feature=share