Helen Browning - 23 December 2011
I'm not sure how to feel about the end of this year. Has it been the year when economic turmoil gripped political leaders to the extent that the now critical issues of climate change and biodiversity loss were lost from view, probably irretrievably... Or was it the year in which a significant minority of people recognised that our values must change if we are to have any chance of a sane future on this planet?
At the Soil Association it's been a year of working through how we can make the biggest and best contribution to people and planet... and at the same time getting on with some great work. I think we end the year clearer about our focus, and with a brilliant team of people, both inside and around the organisation, to help us do it. There is no doubt though, that next year will be tough. Funding our work will be difficult and the market is still rocky, in the supermarkets especially. But I do feel that if we hold our nerve and keep doing everything as well as we can, we will prevail; after all, we are one of the very few groups who offer practical solutions rather than just a whole load of problems.
Talking of which, it's good to have a few hours on the farm, after weeks of leaving home in the dark, working under artificial light all day, and returning in the dark. It makes me realise how easy it is to get cut off from fresh air and trees. Not that farms in the winter are bundles of joy; it's pretty much an endless cycle of feeding, bedding and mucking out, with a bit of repairing, fencing and planting thrown in. The main topic of conversation with the pig team is whether it's better to be wet or frozen. Wet means mud/heavy legs/lots of road sweeping. Frozen means no mud, but carting water all day long. Either way, they still all agree, as does our vet, that the pigs are happier and healthier outside, even in winter... but it does take a committed team to keep doing it all properly under these harsh conditions.
On the farm, the year feels like it's been a good one. Yes, we had our first ever TB breakdown, but have just gone clear again. Farm gate prices have been, and are still, strong across most of what we do, and our costs have not risen quite as fast as our non organic neighbours. We have managed to invest in a couple of new tractors, in a new muck system so that we can meet the regulations coming in next month, and the resilience of our organic approach was demonstrated through the drought this summer. Our clover leys and cereals did us proud, and with a mild autumn allowing cattle to graze outside until late on, we should have plenty of good quality silage and hay to see us through to spring.
So, at a time of complexity and change in the wider world, it's good to have the farm to come back to, to remind myself that we can continue to take practical steps forward. And if the Soil Association can help people do that, maybe that's the biggest difference anyone can hope to make.
Have a great Christmas, I'm looking forward to bouncing into the new year with energy and enthusiasm!'
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.