Soil Association boss on milk, markets and mudslinging

Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning started her career by taking over the reins of the family farm aged just 24.

In the 30 years since then, she has launched a successful organic food range and revitalised the village pub. Farmers Weekly paid her a visit.

See also: Key market facts for anyone considering organic farming

Four trustees resigned last year in a spat over the Soil Association’s strategy – so what does the future hold?

Over the past few years we have tried to make sure we are increasingly relevant to more people, and bridge the divide between organic and conventional farming.

Our strategy, The Road to 2020, was controversial with some people, because it planned to work constructively with non-organic farmers.

We had to decide whether to go back to being provocative and isolate “almost organic” farmers and consumers by focusing on the negatives, or work together and focus on solutions.

It takes a long time for perceptions to change, but the days of mudslinging from the organic movement are long gone, and we now have much more constructive engagement.

For some farmers, organic feels like an inherent criticism of conventional methods. Organic isn’t perfect – we are still learning, but a lot of organic farming principles are relevant to everyone.

It goes the other way too – organic farmers can learn about innovations in conventional farming as well.

That said, we do need to stand up for what we believe in, such as campaigning against neonicotinoids and talking to the government about antibiotics resistance and the threat of MRSA in pigs – which we did years ago before it became a recognised issue.

“The days of mudslinging from the organic movement are long gone” 
Helen Browning

We need to anticipate where problems might arise and do our best to offer solutions: we have a lot of farmers who aren’t using antibiotics and their experiences can be a real help to the sector.

We’re also leading projects like Food for Life to improve the food culture in schools.

We all know what the problems are so let’s try and deliver solutions that work in the real world.

Sustainable intensification is heralded as the way forward for farming – do you agree?

It is a phrase being interpreted in different ways by people with different agendas, so it is a very loaded term. Clearly it is in everyone’s interest to improve the efficiency with which we grow crops.

But we need to transform our food systems so they are not dependent on fossil fuels or wasteful of finite resources such as phosphate.

“Over the past 50 years agriculture has become much less efficient with these resources – and at the same time we are doing a lot of damage to our soils.

It shouldn’t be about driving the horse harder, it is about rethinking how to use resources and close the loop on nutrient cycling.

There are a lot of interesting ideas out there, such as agroforestry – planting orchards interspersed with arable crops to improve productivity and stabilise soil erosion.

Farmers are experimenting all the time and we are supporting them through our Duchy Originals Future Farming programme. But we need to see more money channelled into how we produce more high-quality food without increasing our use of resources.

Can organic farming feed the world?

We already produce enough food to feed the world but there are still one billion going hungry, so it is not all about producing the food, it is about who can afford to buy it.

Organic farming can help us feed some of the most vulnerable parts of the world: a lot of the best projects are about enabling women to grow a variety of crops in Africa, where organic techniques have real benefit in improving yields at low cost.

If we went completely organic in the UK it would reduce arable yields. Growing organic forages is easy, but we do need to focus on how to grow organic cereals better, and I think with some real effort and investment into R&D we can crack it.

In the long term, our current form of agriculture won’t feed the world because we are going to run out of a lot of the resources we need. Business as usual isn’t an option.

Organic milk seems to have weathered the downturn better than conventional – why is that?

Omsco has done a very good job of growing the market and working with processors who are differentiating still further, which helps keep the market stable. I am a big supporter of brands – having that direct connection with the consumer is hugely important.

“Unless you are going to be the cheapest producer in the world – which in the UK we will never be – you have to develop a unique selling point.

British consumers want to buy British milk and it is bonkers to be selling it for less than water. But when retailers are under pressure farmers are always going to be the losers because we have no power in the marketplace.

“Making co-operatives work in the UK has been very difficult, because farmers are easily lured to a bit more money today without thinking about the future. Omsco has managed to hold together a loyal band of farmers for a long time.

Will the groceries code adjudicator benefit the industry?

Helen Browning in a minute

Who do you most admire?

James Brett, a man I recently met at a dinner. Through Plant for Peace he is persuading farmers in Afghanistan to swap opium poppies for food crops, and is developing markets to rebuild an economic base. He is just totally inspirational.

Where is your favourite place?

Up on the Downs at home – it’s the first place I try to get to on a Saturday morning.

What are your hobbies?

I play a lot of squash and like yoga, walking, reading and eating.

Tell us something not many people know about you.

I make the world’s best margarita.

What makes you angry?

Not much makes me angry but I do get irritated by pomposity.

What book are you reading?

I read a lot – at the moment I’m reading When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What’s your favourite film?

The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. It’s a great film and I love the music in it.

The fact that the supermarkets were so against it convinced me there was real merit in creating the role. It is a long-standing issue that everyone is terrified of putting their hands up, but Christine Tacon is making sensible progress.

I also think the relationship between farmers and processors – not just retailers – should be increasingly under scrutiny, as well as the food service sector which has been the dirtiest end of the business for years.

Fortunately that is changing fast now, with initiatives such as the Catering Mark being taken up by the food service market leaders.

How has developing your own brand changed your view of the industry?

The trials and tribulations of running a genuine farm-based food business are legion and marketing is endlessly troublesome. We have had a real go at virtually every sales angle – some have worked and some haven’t.

Balancing the carcass is a big problem, so exports are important, and I found very quickly I had to change my farming to meet consumer and retailer demand 365 days a year; it really changes your perspective.

I think there are too many layers in the chain and farmers would benefit from investing in that chain.

I’m not saying everyone should develop their own brand, but in New Zealand farmers buy into their processor and work with the brand holders – it gives you some presence and security in the market.

What is the biggest challenge facing the farming industry?

The biggest challenge is going to be meeting climate change targets.

What sort of farming are we going to have in 20-30 years, and how are we going to get there? More volatile weather patterns are going to bring additional challenges.

But in the shorter term, trying to make farming work financially in a global market, with all the volatility that brings, is very difficult.

Farmers are trying to operate long-term enterprises in a very unpredictable world, so strategies for resilience are going to be key.

Is the EU good for British farming?

I am a strong supporter of the EU for a host of reasons. From a farmer’s perspective I don’t think we could expect the financial support from the Treasury that we get from the CAP.

And if all of our trading partners are being supported, being out of the EU would leave us in a very tricky position.

There are undoubtedly problems, but they are small compared to the need for a level playing field around things such as environmental regulation and trade negotiations.

How has the role of women in farming changed over the years?

Women have always played an important role in agriculture, but they have often been unsung.

When I started farming 30 years ago I felt like I was a real curiosity. I think that’s changing slowly – in the organic world there are many more women involved in their own right.

I think it’s often the women who want to do things differently, and I think they often have a longer term perspective.

As well as your other roles, you have also taken over the village pub. How do you find the time and energy to take on so much?

The Soil Association job is all-consuming, Monday to Friday, so the farming is confined to the weekends; luckily I have a wonderful team, so I don’t need to worry about the day-to-day stuff at home.

It is stressful at times, but as a business we’ve always had a lot of energy and enthusiasm for trying something new and fun – and been willing to pull the plug when it doesn’t work.

“Whenever you start a new venture it is hard to justify bringing in people with the right skills early enough – we did make it up a bit as we went along. But I really enjoy what I do, and farming is a huge pleasure and a privilege.

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