We’re not really the awkward squad, you know
Helen Browning - 24 February 2012
When I started farming organically, 25 years ago, I did so for a number of reasons. I was concerned about diminishing wildlife on the farm; and my desire to find a way to keep pigs and poultry in a way I felt respected their right for a good, natural life had already been stimulated whilst doing my degree at Harper Adams, where visits to supposedly ‘state-of-the-art’ farms sometimes left me shocked by their attitude to animal welfare.
When I took on farm management of my own, everyone seemed to be trying to sell me products with promises of ever increasing yields; sales reps rolled up my drive daily... maybe being a young female exacerbated the problem! I found I had no control or influence over where or how my product was sold, and no connection at all with whoever was eating it. Standing on my own two feet and taking some responsibility for engaging with customers seemed a vital part of the sort of business I wanted to run. To me, farming organically was an attempt at independence, at striking a deal with the public: I will try to produce healthy food for you, as humanely and gently as possible, and hope that you will support me with a fair return.
Along the way, I've learned a lot, and when I talk to other farmers who are, or have for a while, farmed organically, they also say that the experience has usually made them better farmers. Even those who have gone back to non-organic systems, often due to lack of market premium, say that they have continued with many organic practices and principles, using more clover and less N fertiliser for example. Since taking on the leadership of the Soil Association, I have been keen that we should be working with non-organic farmers as well as organic, to share some of the knowledge that could be helpful in improving profitability as well as environmental performance. Learning from each other is invaluable – many of the best farmers are not organic and may never be, but their expertise is vital in developing better practice.
To me, organic farming is a major research project, and there is still a huge amount to learn. Our systems have not in any way yet reached their potential. Much of the innovation happens at farm level, rather than in more formal research, so the new Soil Association strategy aims to tap into this and involve farmers and growers in directing and undertaking the research they identify is needed. We have put in place an Innovation and Best Practice team, to drive this approach, and to work with farmers of all persuasions, as well as research bodies, for, I hope, the benefit of all of agriculture. Even though I know many non-organic farmers will still regard the Soil Association as the 'awkward squad', I do hope that we can encourage at least some to share their experiences, and re-evaluate what organic principles might bring to their own farms too.
The text of this blog appeared as the 'Talking Point' column in this week’s Farmers’ Weekly
Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.