Pak choi from Cheshire - Norley's taste of The Orient
Dennis Ford has been growing vegetables all his life, but the Norley parish councillor has dedicated the past three decades to something rather different Words by Emma Mayoh<br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIRSTY THOMPSON
Some might consider recreating a South China climate in the heart of Cheshire a tall order. But not for Dennis Ford. For 30 years he has been creating the perfect warm, humid conditions to help the tonnes of oriental vegetables he grows thrive.
Huge polytunnels and glass houses on land at his home in Norley are stuffed full of the leafy vegetables he cultivates from seeds sourced from China. Over the past three decades he has grown 15 varieties and still grows several including pak choi, choi sum, kai laan, kai choi, chee kwa and bok choi under the name JD Ford.
The produce is very quick growing. Dennis and friend, Brian Leigh, do all the work between them. They sew seeds three times a week and constantly harvest the crops. It can be a year-round process, dependant on weather, but they grow at least ten months of the year.
‘We don’t know what holidays are,’ said Dennis, originally from Alvanley. ‘Once the process starts you can’t stop. We can’t compete with the big growers so we had to look at doing something different.
‘The vegetables have a short shelf-life so we have to work fast and constantly keep our eyes on the produce. I couldn’t do it without Brian’s help. It is a lot of work for two people but we’re good at working together.’
Dennis, also a parish councillor, has been growing vegetables since he was a small boy. His family have been market gardeners for generations and his father, James, had a smallholding in Over Peover where he grew bedding plants, chrysanthemums and lots of flat lettuce. But when Dennis moved to Norley with his wife, Pamela, tastes changed and iceberg lettuce was more in demand. Unable to keep up with volumes grown by farmers in other counties, he looked for a niche market.
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The 71-year-old worked with a handful of Chinese restaurants and supermarket owners in Manchester's Chinatown to supply what they needed. It took a lot of research and time building up contacts to find good seed suppliers in China but now he supplies many people in this community.
He said: ‘It was a challenge. During my life I’ve grown everything you could think of but we needed something different. We started off with mooli and then tried varieties of oriental vegetables. It wasn’t just growing something so different; it was growing them in a totally different environment than what they were normally produced in.
‘Trying to create conditions found in South China is Cheshire was something that took work. We worked really closely, and still do, with restaurants and supermarkets to make sure they get what they want. I’m still learning after 30 years.’
The work paid off. In fact, there is a good chance that if you’ve dined in Chinatown in Manchester that you’ve tasted Dennis’s vegetables. But it’s not only paying customers who enjoy them. Much of the produce is also used for staff meals and some of it also makes it to the homes of restaurant owners - a sure sign of a good crop according to Dennis.
Despite being beyond the traditional retirement age, Dennis shows no signs of slowing down. He said: ‘The years have flown by and here we are still working. We’re providing an authentic food for the Chinese community and we get a lot of satisfaction from that.
‘We keep on going because we love it. I’m only 71 after all and it’s too early to give up. Maybe I will think about retirement in the next ten years. We’ll see.’