‘Land is the most important thing in the world. Without land we don’t exist.’
These are the words of Indian-born Mehr Fardoonji, one of the earliest organic market gardeners in the UK. She’s been running the Oakcroft Organic Market Gardens in south Cheshire for forty-five years.
It was in 1950s India that she first became hooked on the idea of working on the land.
‘In Gandhi’s Ashram, where I spent half a year, I discovered Albert Howard’s ‘An Agricultural Testament’ that convinced me that land was the basis of life - and that organic farming was the only way to the health of the land and people.’
She lived for four years in the foothills of the Himalayas becoming part of Vinoba Bhave’s land gift movement, redistributing land to the landless.
At 29, Mehr returned to England where she had been schooled. She had contacts in the early organic movement in the UK and knew of the work of Eve Balfour.
‘I wanted to work on the land,’ she says, ‘so I spent two years working in different market gardens. One of them, in Bromley, Kent was organic.’
Mehr’s real opportunity came in 1961 when her brother bought her a four-acre plot of land in Malpas, Cheshire.
‘I started the market garden from nothing,’ she says. ‘When I arrived it was just a field that had been used for cattle grazing. In the first year I planted a small crop of strawberries and it just went from there.’
She initially grew vegetables on her own, supplementing her income by teaching yoga and adult education, but after a year she employed a 15 year old boy, Peter Speed, straight from school - he stayed at Oakcroft until he died in 2005.
It took about five years to get the gardens going. They were organic from the very beginning and the whole area carries the Soil Association Symbol.
‘Nobody really knew about organic then,’ she recalls. ‘I was selling it as ‘organic’ but it meant nothing to most people, although they liked the flavour.’
At its peak, running at full capacity in the 80’s and 90’s, Oakcroft had a regular stall at the Chester market and supplied several local farmers markets and vegetable box schemes. ‘Hundreds of volunteers came to work for us. They just heard about us by word of mouth - this was before the days of WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms),’ she says. Many stayed for a year, or even more, and helped out with the planting, watering, picking for market day and making compost.
Now in her seventies Mehr is still running the gardens, though not to their full capacity. ‘I can’t live without being outdoors and I love planting and growing,’ she says. ‘The land is in my blood now.’
Sadly due to the poor health of her husband, Mehr has chosen to retire to look after him full time. She is currently looking for someone to lease the business and land. For more information visit www.oakcroft.org.uk
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007