Oakcroft Organic Gardens in Malpas is the dream job for Lisa Payne
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 July 2014 | UPDATED: 14:07 08 March 2017
We meet a woman who is determined to keep an organic food garden growing in Malpas
It took seven years but Lisa Payne finally landed her dream job. Having been turned down for the role in 2007, the graphic designer had given up on running Oakcroft Organic Gardens in Malpas. But a phone call out of the blue from founder Mehr Fardoonji 18 months ago changed that.
‘I didn’t have enough experience when I first applied for the job,’ explained Lisa, who moved from East London to her rural idyll in Cheshire to take over the running of the garden. ‘But I’d sent Mehr a thank you card after the interview and she had kept it. When I picked the phone up I couldn’t believe it. Of course I wanted to take the job.
‘For a long time I have wanted to do something like this. For the past ten years I have been desperately trying to find a way to do it. This was a dream come true. She called me in December, and I moved up in February. I couldn’t wait to get started.’
Oakcroft Organic Gardens was first set up by Indian-born Mehr. Although she had lived in Britain since she was seven-years-old, she returned to her home country in her early twenties where she worked for six years as part of the Gandhi movement. It was here she learned about English botanist Albert Howard, a pioneer of organic farming. She also lived at the foothills of the Himalayas working for the Bhoodan movement, a voluntary land reform project that asked wealthy landowners to voluntarily give a percentage of their land to landless people who could then settle there and grow their own food.
When she returned to England, aged 29, she worked in several market gardens. But it was in 1962 Oakcroft was bought for her by her mother and brother. Using the knowledge she had already acquired, Mehr became one of the first to be accredited by the Soil Association and through her hard work Oakcroft went from strength-to-strength.
Lisa, 40, said: ‘Mehr was and still is a pioneer. Oakcroft was and is something Mehr is completely passionate about and believes in and she wanted to be a part of an organic future.
‘Over the years she had volunteers from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms who came to help out here as well as a local boy who worked with her for decades. The fruit and vegetables were sold at markets and Mehr also had a box scheme. What she has achieved is incredible.’
But the gardens were scaled back a little around ten years ago when Mehr, now 83, enlisted the help of others to run the gardens. Lisa is now determined to return the gardens to what they once were and to continue Oakcroft’s legacy.
‘I’m so honoured to be given this opportunity. There were several people who have run the gardens over the past ten years with success. But because there have been different people involved, Oakcroft has not become properly established. I want to make sure that happens.’
Lisa already has a successful growing season under her belt with this year’s crops also doing well. She uses two restored mobile glasshouses – thought to be the only two remaining in the UK – to grow on different areas of the land. There is also a woodland and an orchard on the four acre site. Everything is grown organically, with no chemicals or pesticides used.
Lisa said: ‘I used to get an organic vegetable box but I never appreciated it as much as I do now. I would leave purple sprouting broccoli at the back of the fridge. I feel very differently now because I have realised what goes into creating it.
‘It takes the best part of a year to grow from this tiny seed. Now I have more respect for my purple sprouting broccoli! But people don’t necessarily make that connection and it’s important to get the word out to as many people as possible.’
Lisa sold last year’s crops at a few farmers’ markets and this year hopes to do more as well as selling from the garden gate and to get a box scheme set up for interested villagers. But she also has ambitions to establish Oakcroft as an important player in community life.
She said: ‘Having that link with the community is something that is important. A local lady has volunteered to come and help me which I am hopeful will really help get the word out about us.
‘I want to be able to hold community events here, get people down here picking apples in the orchard or have a bonfire where people can come and enjoy some time here. But it will take time to get there.
‘I just can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to be able to do this. I’m determined to make it work. This is such a beautiful place and an amazing site to look after. I feel very privileged to be living out my dream.’