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Conversations At Scarfes Bar: Helen Browning

Meet the woman saving our soil

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Matthew Bell discusses the future of farming with Helen Browning, head of the Soil Association 

Conversations At Scarfes Bar: Helen Browning

Conversations at Scarfes Bar: Philip Mould

What exactly is the point of the Soil Association, I couldn’t help but wonder before meeting its chief executive, Helen Browning. Founded in 1946 by Lady Eve Balfour, a pioneering organic farmer, its main concerns were soil erosion and the impact of intensive farming.

Fast forward to today, and there seems to be so much more to worry about. Take George Monbiot and his Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet documentary, or the Leonardo DiCaprio-funded film Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. Then there are the pesticides, which are killing us all according to the journalists behind the book Our Daily Poison.

So, where in all this is the Soil Association? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, says Browning. ‘The challenge is that nuance is difficult to get across in the world we live in,’ she says. ‘For us it’s not about one extreme or the other, it’s about trying to look at the multi-functional use of land and making the best use of it.’ She agrees that it’s ‘madness’ that 60 per cent of the grain we grow in Britain is fed to animals, not people, and that we should be growing crops that directly feed humans. But she doesn’t champion veganism, saying instead that we should eat less meat of
a higher quality, because sheep and cattle have a role to play in keeping grasslands reinvigorated, which in turn provide insect life – the basis of the whole food chain.

Browning’s path to the Soil Association, which is based in Bristol and employs 300 people, began as a child catching rabbits on her father’s farm. As a teenager, she was inspired by tales of her five great-aunts who lived and farmed near Ledbury during the 1920s. ‘They had a madcap life at a time when most women had a very boring time of it,’ she says, referring to their independence, hunting and whisky-drinking.

Helen Browning

Portrait by Alexandra Dao

Browning’s father took on the lease of Eastbrook farm near Swindon from the Church Commissioners in 1950, but wasn’t wildly encouraging of her ambitions to follow his footsteps. As time wore on, it became obvious that farming was her calling, and in 1986, age 24, she took over the running of the 1,330-acre holding. By then, she had completed a degree in Agricultural Technology at Harper Adams University, but it wasn’t until she spent a year doing the government’s first trial comparing organic to non-organic farming that her eyes were really opened. ‘It was riveting and gave me a chance to really understand deep farming systems in a way that I hadn’t done through my degree, looking at mushroom cycles, pests and diseases, and carbon cycles. I became fascinated by this idea of: “how do you take an organic farm and make it more productive?”’

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This was in contrast to her father’s intensive methods, but over time she was able to effect change. She has long been a champion of rewilding and recently got interested in agroforestry, the idea of re- introducing trees into pastureland, so that animals graze among them as they would have done centuries ago. Now that everyone is finally paying attention to the organic movement, does she feel like saying‘I told you so’?

‘Even if you do think, “why couldn’t this have happened 40 years ago?”, I think you have to not be exasperated and just grab the moment and work with the wind you’ve got blowing right now. Climate is moving faster than we thought it was going to, and when you start to get news that we are losing 2.5 per cent of our insect mass every year you think, “gosh, we haven’t got long to turn this around, it feels really urgent.” At the same time, it does feel like humanity is rallying just at the last moment. But there’s still a lot to do.’

The Soil Association was vocally against Brexit, and Browning finds rumours that 60 per cent of farmers voted to leave the EU ‘completely bizarre, real “turkeys and Christmas”, a crazy thing for them to have done.’ But she sees the opportunity to completely re-write British farming, which the Soil Association is lobbying hard to shape.

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On her own farm, the model is diversification. With ex-husband Henry Stoye and current partner Tim Finney, she has expanded the business to include the village pub, a shop, and a restaurant – all serving home-grown organic produce. When I float the idea that greedy farmers have historically been a problem, she is quick to laugh that away. ‘We run farms and pubs, and both are crazy ways to make a living! I think that farmers are interested in survival. If farmers were really interested in money, they wouldn’t be farming. It’s not money that drives them, it’s being able to care for the land and their livestock, and to be able to pass it on.’ In time, Browning plans to hand over Eastbrook to her daughter, a vet.

Saving the planet for Browning isn’t about donning a hair shirt and foregoing sausages. ‘I can’t live like that,’ she says. ‘I have to have fun in my life, a bit of optimism and energy. This is a long battle, and we’ve got to be able to keep at it, and not feel guilt and panic and give up. I think the energy runs out if you are too extreme – there’s a danger that you put people off if you preach at them too hard.’

Here Helen takes us on a tour of her farm…

In Brief

Town or country? Definitely country.

Glass of wine or green tea? Can I go for both?

Cat or dog? Dog. I haven’t got any at the moment, but I’ve always had them.

Cosy knits or sharp suits? Cosy knits.

Rolling hills or seaside? Rolling hills running down to the sea.


Nicholas Coleridge / Jay Rayner / Nicole Fahri / Caroline Coon / Jonathan Yeo