From Tower Block to Four Acres: Autumn 2013

Originally published in UK Handmade Magazine Autumn 2013.

You know the dream: you’re living close to the land and nature, growing your own food and running your own business. Often, there are chickens involved. Well, apart from the feathered dinosaurs, I keep pinching myself as I’ve been living that dream for the past six months. (Seriously, there’s something weird about chickens with their beady eyes and pecky beaks. They’d eat us if they could and grind us up in their gravel-filled gizzard.)

So how did I go from living in an artist’s studio on the tenth floor of a Brutalist tower block in East London to running four acres of organic market garden in rural Cheshire, complete with an orchard and a small wood? I don’t know about you, but I’m always pretty harsh when I read about people “escaping the rat race and living the rural dream”. I’ll think they’re a trustafarian or have a rich partner. A lot of the time I’m right, but in my case neither of those things is true.  And it all started from a little seed I planted back in 2007.

But let’s start a bit before that. I was in a “proper” office job when I first started expressing my desire to be a farmer about ten years ago, and I was met with derision. A friend of mine laughed and said I was “so London I didn’t even know it.” But living close to the land, trying to be in sync with nature just seemed like common sense to me. I’d trained as an aromatherapist in my mid-twenties but it wasn’t enough. I hankered after something I’d never had but which just felt so right. I looked into doing some kind of agricultural qualification but it didn’t feel right. Also, I was about to turn thirty. Who’d heard of a thirty year old woman going to farm school? I’d be an ancient towney compared to all the eighteen year olds who’d grown up in farming families. I did an English degree with the Open University instead.

But this yearning was still there. I’d trawl the internet looking at opportunities to work on farms to gain experience. This is called WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and they have a website where you can sign up to volunteer your services at www.wwoofinternational.org. It was on one of those late night internet searches that I first came across Oakcroft, the organic market garden that I’m now running.

Mehr Fardoonji, who owns the land, ran the gardens for forty years before taking on tenants when she was in her early seventies so she could look after her husband who was ill. Mehr is now my landlady, my mentor and my friend. For many years Mehr had WWOOFers who helped her with working the land. It just so happened that when I clicked on the website to find out some more about volunteering, Mehr was looking for a new tenant to run the gardens.

What possessed me to decide that I could run a market garden with next to no experience I don’t know, but I had enough passion and enthusiasm that I managed to convince my boyfriend that this was an opportunity we needed to apply for. We made an initial inquiry then wrote a business plan. We were invited to visit on a couple of occasions and on the second time we were interviewed by Mehr and a representative from the Soil Association. I remember walking around the garden afterwards and standing in the woods at the bottom of the field, barely able to contain my excitement. Could all this be mine? Could I really leave London and realise my dream to be close to nature and live on the land?

No, was the answer. Mehr turned us down in favour of a couple who had more experience. I was, of course, disappointed. But the sheer fact that we’d been interviewed, that our business proposal had been taken seriously, was amazing to me. I sent a thank you card to Mehr and that was that.

Then just before Christmas last year I got a text message from my sister: “Answer your landline,” it said, “you’ll like this call.” The landline rang and with some curiosity I answered it. It was Mehr wondering if I was still interested in the possibility of running the gardens.

Was I heck! The address details I’d left in the card I’d sent to her years before were my old address, but thankfully, it was the address and phone number of the flat where I’d lived with my sister who still lived there. So when Mehr came across the card which she’d saved for the past five years and phoned the number my sister was able to give her my new phone number.

Last year, after having been made redundant I’d finally gone freelance in my day job (copy writing and web design). This meant that once I’d run the financials I was able to move within a couple of months. I moved into Oakcroft at the end of February and within three weeks I had my first batch of seeds sown, temporarily housed in the kitchen whilst the propagating house was being repaired.

As mentioned previously, I have little gardening experience. But a lot of enthusiasm, a thirst for learning and an aptitude for finding things out (thank you, Google) have stood me in good stead. That and the fact that Mehr is mentoring me –and with fifty years of organic growing experience behind her, I’m learning more and in a much more hands-on way than I would have on any college course.

It helps that I already knew about running my own business having run my aromatherapy and craft businesses alongside more “proper” office jobs for nearly fifteen years. And I certainly think that craft and gardening have a lot of transferrable skills.

My sewing and quilting rulers have found new homes in the greenhouses as they’re great for working out planting spaces! And in a venture such as this, an aptitude for DIY is also needed – something which most crafters have in spades (pun intended). Being able to think creatively and repair things has already saved me a fair bit of money and again I put that down to my crafty background.

A friend asked me the other day, “Is it really as idyllic as it all sounds?” And the answer is, yes. Yes it is. It’s not all romantic walks in the fields in white eyelet dresses though. It’s hard, physical, dirty work and in the summer especially then it’s crazy long days. But the thrill of seeing vegetables that you’ve nurtured from tiny seeds fully mature in tasty and healthy food is immense. There is real satisfaction in taking bags of salad leaves with edible flowers in them, dark green, glossy courgettes, and the amazing jewel coloured stems of rainbow chard to market. Fresh, local and healthy food produced the way it should be. I take pride in knowing that the only ingredients to have gone into my veg are sun, soil, water and a whole lotta love.

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Lisa Margreet | Designer | Writer | Teacher | Farmer