The Joys Of Modern Life; 38. City farms

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The Independent Culture
THE CITY farm, like the sports personality, is probably the ultimate oxymoron. These urban sanctuaries for farm animals, all sorts of animals, exist to give us deprived inner-city dwellers some of the benefits of the countryside, to make up for all that our environment lacks (you know, mud and more mud and absolutely nothing to do). They are so obviously a Good Thing, so why bother to nominate them as one of the pleasures of living in a metropolis?

For a start, one great thing about a city farm, is that it is not in the country. They are accessible by bus or foot, unlike rural farms where there's no public transport, no way of walking safely along winding lanes, and footpaths are either blocked off, or have snorting bulls wandering across them. On a city farm there are no hazardous aging machinery or barrels of poison.

They are reasonably clean, there are no mangy dogs cruelly tied up, no expanses of ankle deep liquid manure, no need to put on speciality rubber footwear. You can walk straight out of our city farms on to the comfort of pavements without changing shoes.

Above all they have a diversity of livestock to look at. Don't bother heading for open country to show children the kind of farmyard scenes they expect from picture books. Either there will be no animals in evidence or just one species as far as the eye can see.

Take East Anglia, for example, where monoculture means that fields of sugarbeet or turnips stretch to infinity. Elsewhere there may be chickens, hundreds and thousands of them, but they're hidden from view in battery hen houses. If any are visible it'll be nothing but sheep, sheep, sheep, or row upon row of cows, and that's the lucky ones allowed to live outside. Just as there's nothing but white folk wherever you look, and a homogenised breed of Conservative voter.

My parents live in a part of the country given over to the cultivation of mange touts and garlic. We naively took our two-year-old down there and had to get straight back in the car, cut across a terrifying dual carriageway and get out on the side of a windswept hill to look at some sheep on the other side of barbed wire. We'd have been better off up the road from home in London where he can see pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese wandering around the cobbled farmyard, a cow and her calf, rabbits and as great a variety of people visiting them. For biodiversity, just head for town.

The rustics can pity us our urban existence all they like. Call me a cow of the snotty metropolitan variety, but Hackney city farm provides our family with far more pleasure and interest than their benighted countryside. And it's the only one I know with an Italian cafe serving toasted focaccia sandwiches in an outbuilding.