Tag Archives: Soil Association

Community buy-out to secure biodynamic farm

Bluebell WoodThere was a time when the earth was free and belonged to all. People grew food and grazed animals, to eat, to live. Then the land grabs started. With legal stealth and physical violence, “enclosures” were enforced over several centuries in Britain. The commons – the earth and soil and woodlands used by peasants for farming – became the property of warlords who exploited the need to grow food for survival.

It does not need to be this way! We do not need to run the world for the benefit of might-is-right profiteers!

Fast-forward to the 21st century. One of the problems of producing food in the UK is the lack of available land. Who will be lucky enough to inherit? Most of the land belongs to a small percentage of the aristocracy.

Farming land is rare. Land is seen as an “investment”. Investors buy land to lock up their money, using it like a savings account. This means land becomes prohibitively expensive and makes it difficult for would-be farmers to find a foothold.

But I bring encouraging news. Community farm ownership seeks to break the “land-as-investment” deadlock, and make land accessible for farming.

Let’s take a closer look at this model by visiting Rush Farm in Worcester – which I had the good fortune to do as part of my work with Greenhouse.

Lleyn sheep Rush Farm

Rush Farm is an 150-acre mixed traditional biodynamic and organic family farm in the heart of England. In 2012, its current owners joined with the Biodynamic Land Trust to form Stockwood Community Benefit Society Ltd. The aim is for the Benefit Society to buy Rush Farm and its ethically-run 27-unit eco-property, Stockwood Business Park, from its current owners.

Pic below of current owners, Sebastian, Tabitha and Sophie, three siblings of the Parsons family.

Sebastian, Sophie, Tabitha_6269

In this way, the land can neither be passed down to the next generation as an inheritance, nor can it be sold. Stockwood Community Benefit Society ensures the land remains as a community-owned biodynamic and organic farm – for ever.

Is land a community resource for the benefit of many, or a commodity to be bought and sold to profit but a few? In his article Transforming Capitalism, Martin Large of the Biodynamic Land Trust argues that managing land as a community resource can alleviate the current economic crisis.

This is the mechanism: Stockwood Community Benefit Society is selling shares, from a minimum of 100 £1 shares (£100) to a maximum of 20,000 £1 (£20,000) shares. Unlike commercial shares, community shares cannot be sold. Instead, shareholders are supporting a sustainable enterprise.

IMG_0400However, it’s not all one-way – Stockwood Community Benefit Society anticipates paying-out 5% interest a year to its community share holders. Here is a pic of its stall selling shares at Rush Farm fete on the 3 August. The £1 million share offer was launched in May and has already raised about half a million pounds. Offer ends 31 October 2013 so invest now!

A bit more background: Sebastian Parsons, and his two sisters, Tabitha and Sophie, bought Rush Farm in 2005. Their parents, Anne and Adrian Parsons, have managed it as a biodynamic and organic farm ever since.

WOW. Thanks to these enlightened farming methods, the soil is revitalised, carbon-rich, and brimming with fertility. Its native Lleyn sheep and Hereford cattle are beautifully cared-for. The farm’s mixed habitats –  ancient woodlands, wetlands, herb-rich meadows and grassland – are nurtured and wildlife has returned, including bees, butterflies, lapwings and curlews.


Demeter biodynamic-certified and Soil Association organic-certified Rush Farm sells meat and fresh produce, and also earns an income from the rental from its on-farm Stockwood Business Park (see my pic of a light industrial units) – a vital rural hub employing over 100 local people, and making it viable for them to stay in the countryside. The business park is full of groovy businesses, too.

teiner/Waldorf kindergartenStockwood Business Park even has its own Steiner/Waldorf nursery kindergarten. (Please can I be three-years-old again, and attend?).

Wrapped around a working farm with lush nature, the business park has to be one of the most blissful places in he world to work.

Sebastian Parsons

Sebastian Parsons is also the CEO and co-founder of Elysia, which includes the UK distribution of Dr.Hauschka‘s organic skin care products, and is based at Stockwood Business Park. The voluntary chief executive of the Biodynamic Association, Sebastian also applies Rudolph Steiner’s far-out but incredibly practical philosophy on the interconnectedness of everything (anthroposophy) to to Rush Farm, Elysia, and Stockwood Community Benefit Society.

Makes sense doesn’t it? Because everything is connected!

Photo 03-12-2006 07 01 49 PMSebastian’s grandfather was David Clement, a pioneer of Britain’s biodynamic movement. In 1933, Clement bought Broome Farm (also in Worcester) which became an agricultural research centre, and for half a century, the Biodynamic Association’s headquarters. But, sadly, in the 1980s, Broome Farm was sold  and lost to biodynamic and organic management– to the Parsons’ chagrin.

“My sisters and I never spoke about it at the time,” says Sebastian. “But much later we found that each of us had resolved to one day buy Broome Farm back. We never did. However, when we bought Rush Farm, we felt we had achieved our aim, and fulfilled our commitment to the land.”

More social history, this time about Rush Farm. Under its previous owners in the 1950s, Rush Farm inspired the writing of The Archers, the world’s longest-running radio soap opera.

Radio Times Nov 1951

Radio Times Nov 1951

Early episodes were recorded at Rush Farm and its nearby pub, The Bull, at Inkberrow, while Rush Farm’s fireplace featured as the Archers’ fireplace on a Radio Times cover (viz pic). And if that is not enough farm gossip, Olympic showjumper, Pat Smythe, used to ride at Rush Farm, when it was a stud farm in the ’50s and ’60s.

Now Rush Farm is in the limelight again, thanks to its Stockwood Community Benefit Society share offer to secure the biodynamic and organic farm’s future – for ever.

Community investors – be part of the solution! Invest in this worthwhile sustainable enterprise (with 5% return). Deadline ends 31 October 2013.

Food 2030 – spin not substance

Venue magazine asked me for my view on Food 2030 for its Feb 3 issue. That got me thinking:

The government’s food strategy for the next 20 years sounded like good news.

“Britain must grow more sustainable food,” went the Guardian headline as farming minister, Hilary Benn, launched Food 2030 at the Oxford Farming Conference.

Hilary was using all the right words: climate change, food security, homegrown food.

Hilary even included this rallying call:

“People power can help bring about a revolution in the way food is produced and sold.”

That sentence could have come straight from the planet-friendly Soil Association. Hold on a minute. I think it did. I remember writing something similar when I was editor of the organic charity’s magazine, Living Earth.

So, has the government finally got the green message?

Look, I hate to be cynical but there is an election coming up.

The fact is – and you might as well know sooner than later – New Labour (and Conservatives when in power) are as wedded to the dominant global food system as ever.

Food 2030 pretends to be open-minded about GM but I am not convinced.

According to Hilary Benn’s performance at the Soil Association 2008 conference, the minister does not inspire confidence.

(Watch out for Hilary at the Soil Association conference in February).

So Hilary tries to reassure us that the government is on the case because it is spending £90m over the next five years “to fund innovative technological research and development” with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Sounds like quick-fix technology to me – good for corporate finances but not for us mere mortals.

You can bet that not-much of that £90m will go on researching already-existing healthy farming models such as organic farming or permaculture.

Food 2030 pretends to be looking for solutions but instead dumps the burden on consumers and farmers.

(Reminds me of that ghastly government advert on climate change where the little kid sees a picture of a puppy dying in the rising tide. O, so kids must feel guilty while the government carries on with business-as-usual? No, minister, that is not what I would call positive action against climate change).

Back to Food 2030 and Hilary’s big push against food waste. Yes, we waste food but hold on a minute. Why focus on what we citizens keep rotting in our fridge when supermarkets throw away far more food than we do?

And as for telling farmers to produce more local food when – hello? – council farms are being sold off.

Benn’s only vaguely substantial idea was to be more honest about labelling meat’s country of origin.

But then that was a Tory idea anyway.

So, sorry – not impressed.

Are you?


Stop press (added 03.05.2010): The Soil Association has produced a report investigating the big fat lie that the UK needs to double food production by 2050.

FSA wastes my money on rubbish organic research

Preparing for pesticide application.
Image via Wikipedia

The UK government food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has published a new report on organic food.

“Let’s stop this tomfoolery once-and-for-all about organic food being better for you,” seems to be the subtext.

In its attempts to convince us we are wrong to trust our senses (including common sense and sense of taste), the Food Standards Agency has had to undertake some mind-bending contortions. See for yourself – the actual report is here.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) claims to have conducted an exhaustive review of all the literature comparing organic and non-organic produce in the last 50 years.

Its review of 162 studies seems rather meagre compared to the Soil Association‘s 2001 review by Shane Heaton of over 400 studies.

Perhaps the FSA managed to keep its numbers low by omitting studies. It conveniently left out:

  • studies on contaminants such as pesticide residues (see pic)
  • studies examining the environmental benefits of organic farming
  • results of a major European Union-funded study involving 31 research and university institutes and the publication of more than 100 scientific papers earlier this year.

Professor Carlo Leifert, who conducted the above EU-study, which found organic milk is way-much better for you than non-organic milk, remarked:

“With these literature reviews you can influence the outcome by the way that you select the papers that you use for your meta-analysis…My feeling – and quite a lot of people think this – is that this is probably the study that delivers what the FSA wanted as an outcome.”

The FSA could find only eleven studies that fitted its meta-criteria.


I am no scientist, but since when was eleven a big-enough sample to draw conclusions?

The fact is we need more research on the nutritional differences.

But I don’t want my tax spent on a biased analysis.

The FSA has a reputation for being hysterically anti-organic and pro-GM.

This report is making me think its rep is live and kickin’ again.

Addendum 19 September 2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]My understanding of this report continues to grow.
Let me share my findings: the FSA report DID show higher levels of key nutrients in organic food in some of the data.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine carried out the survey (goodness knows why)
rejected the findings because the samples did not meet its criteria.
If you add the samples together, the results would show organic food does have more nutrients.
Crikey – complicated, eh?
It’s the deceptions and obfuscations which make things hard to understand.
I always say: the truth is simple.

Better health at Better Food

Better health campaign launch

The vegetables in the picture were organically grown by my local supermarket in a field at Chew Magna, seven miles outside Bristol.

They were on display on a table in the Better Food company‘s shop for its launch last Thursday of a three-month education campaign for Better Health.

Health begins with healthy soil as we organicists know. Phil Haughton, owner and grower put it well: “Without soil we don’t exist and good soil produces abundance like this.”

Then he introduced the two speakers, nutritionist Jamie Richards, who is the shop’s health supplement guru, and Alex Kirchin from Viridian, the ethical vitamins company with a Soil Association organic range.

I tool copious notes. Jamie’s campaign aims to offer ideas for lifestyle changes that are cheap, simple, safe, effective – and proven.

The smallest changes often make the biggest difference.

Here are some of my favourites from Jamie:

  • Make sure at least half your plateful is non-starchy veg (i.e. not potatoes)
  • All carbs to be complex such as brown rice
  • Eat oily foods such as nuts, seeds, fish
  • And breathe.

Alex Kirchin reminded us to take care of ourselves and used the analogy of putting on the oxygen mask in a plane before helping anyone else.

My favourite Viridian tip concerned Vitamin C.

When animals are stressed they manufacture extra Vitamin C.

However we are one of the few species who do not make Vitamin C at all.

That’s why we have to eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables.

I have a guilty secret: I don’t think I get enough immune-boosting Vitamin C in my diet.

So at the first hint of swollen glands, I take 1,000mg a day and have seen off many a cold or sore throat. In fact I believe Vitamin C could more useful than Tamiflu in beating swine flu.

Anyone else with a secret supplement habit?

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The Organic Food Festival 2009

Lido couscous cropped again

We met last night to discuss the Organic Food Festival 12-13 September 2009 in association with the Soil Association.

First my starter (above) which made me think: my favourite dishes are mush-tastic. I eat lots of grains and pulses, and, let’s face it, they blob.

Please don’t reject my love because of their apparent lack of finesse.

Nourishing, healthy and economical, grains and pulses lend themselves to many tastes.

I ate the above starter (£6.50) last night at the Lido (saved and restored to its Victorian-swimming-baths-original thanks to a community campaign).

Couscous with yogurt, fresh broad beans and coriander – delicious, soothing.

Even when eating out I am drawn to mushy grains.

But why be ashamed? Eating for substance is the organic way.

“We are about inner quality, not outer appearance – that is our hallmark.”

So said Patrick Holden, Soil Association director, recently quoted in the Independent apropos the abolition of those wonky EU-rules on wonky veg.

Which brings us back to the Organic Food Festival.

Last night’s dinner was the inauguration of two things:

1) I was in my new role as food editor of The Source.

2) The Source is helping produce the programme for the Organic Food Festival 2009. And that’s what we doing, round a table at the Lido.

Every September, Bristol Harbourside transforms into Europe’s largest organic market place. The Soil Association organic festival used to be free but became so popular it got rammed so, there has been a charge. This year £1 of the £5 entry fee goes to the Soil Association.

My message?

Join us!

The Organic Food Festival in Bristol Harbourside on 12 – 13 September 2009

Taste the future

Organic is more than a product

– it is our sustainable future.

Lunch at The Spark


Here is lunch at The Spark, the wonderful publication I edit.

I am still at the Soil Association two-days a week as contributing editor. Now I am editor of The Spark on two more days. My inner-Gemini loves having two jobs, especially as both have ethical, sustainable values.

Every week, we stock the small Spark office fridge with fresh provisions from Better Food, the organic supermarket. On my plate is:

Wise healers in Ancient Greece counselled eating from a wide range of food, the origin of mezze. Lunch at The Spark fulfils this criteria for nutritional variety.

It fulfils my appetite on other levels too. Free-thinking and alternative, it’s been part of my life since publisher, John Dawson, bought out the first issue in 1993. It’s now the biggest free ethical quarterly in the southwest.

An independent publication, The Spark is a precious thing. Instead of celebrity gossip and relentless doom, it offers inquisitive editorial and practical solutions. The Spark is optimistic. It embodies the idea that it’s better to shine a light than shout at the darkness.

If I want to shine that beam at myself, The Spark can steer me to self-knowledge. I feel I can be more useful and peaceful for acknowledging my demons. As Gandhi put it:

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

The Spark is brimming with creative ways to make a difference, both inner and outer. Whether looking for a therapist or a course on permaculture, it is THE place to advertise if you want to catch 99,000 like-minded people.

The spring 2009 Spark goes out today to indie food shops and local libraries from Glastonbury to Bristol and beyond Bath.  Join The Spark on Facebook and visit The Spark website (heading for its revamp).

Back to my lunch. We have an hour to eat and clear up. Civilised with time to digest. The conversation ranges wide and is, well, sparky.

How was your lunch?

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Bread to breast

Breastfeeding an infant

Image via Wikipedia

My first blog competition yielded two entrants and both were stunners.

I asked: “food bloggers, what is your favourite real food? Its tastes are enticing but not from a laboratory and it nourishes as nature intended.”

The prize? A DVD of the Austrian documentary, Our Daily Bread. I had organised its London premiere in October 2006 at the Institut Français on behalf of the Soil Association and the Guild of Food Writers. My brilliant colleague, Craig Sams, kindly introduced it. Our Daily Bread records the drama of industrial food production, without comment and with a keen eye for beauty in the wierdest places.

I am sending this DVD to Helen who wrote a superb winning post at her food blog, Haddock in the Kitchen. She brought all the issues in the film to life but with a hopeful spin.

Choosing bread as her favourite real food, Helen, who lives in rural France, explained how the local boulangeries are in danger of dying out and how “the ubiquitous sliced loaf is enjoying an increasingly high profile on supermarket shelves”.

However the country’s lively food culture won’t take this lying down and the French (who have hung on their flour mills unlike the Brits) are taking home-baking to heart: “There are literally mountains of bread machines for sale in every supermarket – with a price to suit every pocket,” writes Helen.

Helen explains how best to use a bread machine; she uses hers to mix and prove the dough, and her beloved Aga to bake it in.

My second entrant is Kate from A Merrier World whose post takes us on an info-packed journey, starting with the importance of play. This is how children learn: with touch and smell and feeling free to be creative. (My favourite way to learn too!).

Kate describes how home-baking provides those early sensory impressions hopefully laying the firm foundation for adult confidence in the kitchen.

I am sending Kate mix. by James McIntosh, the home economist on a mission to get us all cooking again by giving the quantities and instructions needed for everyday recipes.

Taking up my theme of how processed food is laced with cheap additives, Kate tells the story of the dangerous misuse of melamine to make food seem more protein-filled. She ends by reporting on the return to breastfeeding to avoid such contaminants.

Breastfeeding is a powerful example of a natural, real and healthy food that has been replaced by a money-making alternative.

Women are under great pressure not to breastfeed and those complex reasons are analysed in one of my top-favourite book, The Politics of Breastfeeding – when breasts are bad for business, by Gabrielle Palmer.

But then women can also feel under pressure if they want to  breastfeed and it did not work out. So this is no guilt-trip!

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Jamie Oliver – the real thing

I once sat in a room with Jamie Oliver for two and a half hours as he gave five interviews on the trot to the Scottish media. Whether explaining his passion for organic food to a reporter, or pacing the small room in-between bouts, Jamie seemed comfortably himself.

It was 2004, and Jamie hinted his next step was to do something with school meals. I escorted him through the university building where the Soil Association was holding its annual conference (stop press: our next conference is in Bristol this coming November). As he passed the book stall, Jamie bought twenty pounds worth of books on organic farming. We shook hands and I have to report – this guy is for real. He exudes natural warmth and spontaneity.

Now he is on television teaching Rotherham how to cook. And I love him.

The TV show tonight could not have packed-in more touching scenes. Julie used to live on crisps and chocolate – now she cooks healthy fresh dinners. The miner who found food teaches fellow miners how to stir-fry. Stereotypes fall away. So-called feckless single mothers and ‘real’ men, the stuff of tabloid headlines, absorb Jamie’s lessons – eager to learn, brimming with untapped talents.

Jamie takes his inspiration from the wartime Ministry of Food – Marguerite Patten reminds Jamie “the Ministry never lectured…cooking has to be pleasurable.” Wise advice but pity we have to wait for a disaster to get people changing their behaviour.

Such as the obesity crisis that Jamie graphically illustrates when he drops by the hospital to see Julie’s scan (and the baby she might call after him). There is a hoist and equipment that costs £60,000 to help care for extremely obese people. Clinically-fat people who do not need to suffer if – as the NHS medics insist – they had learnt to cook from scratch from the start.

Jamie gets a thousand people together in one go for a mass cook-in. He is working on the theory of passing it on. If I learn a recipe and pass it on to five people then – do the maths. I marvel at the cheffy dishes he chooses for people who have never cooked before: flattening chicken breasts pressed with parma ham.  His chief ingredients are chilli, ginger and garlic to get everything tasty – top tips to pass on.

His Rotherham experiment is part of revolution, with cooks as guerilla fighters in the war against junk food.

[I changed ‘part of’ from ‘beginning of’ following Sarah Beattie‘s comment because she‘s right: there’s unseen work going on, which is precariously-funded.]

My recipe: I put flat mushrooms with slivered garlic under a grill, brushed them with olive oil top and bottom so they would not burn. When they had softened, I added a slice or two of camembert cheese that took five minutes to melt. I piled the mushrooms on wholemeal toast and served them with grated carrots and mustard leaves snipped from my potted salad plants.

I hope Jamie would be proud of me.

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Bread and organic ghee

This morning’s breakfast: toast from Hobbs House Bakery and organic ghee from Pukka, both bought at the Soil Association’s Organic Food Festival this weekend.

I have wanted to buy ghee for months – it’s a healthy fat that can be used at high temperatures without burning. But I have been deterred by the ingredients list. This ghee, however, has nothing in it but clarified butter from organic milk.

I have pledged to eat unpackaged local and organic during Organic Fortnight. As this is impossible, I Ask Questions instead.

“Why is the organic ghee from Austria ?” I sternly ask Pukka’s Helena Kowalski. Turns out Pukka works with an Austrian farmer who specialises in making ghee on his small farm. Perhaps this is a new way for west country organic farmers to add value to their milk?

My breakfast toast is from Hobbs House Bakery in Bath – local points there. The Hobbs people (see their colourful stall below) were jubilant about their win at the Soil Association organic food awards on Friday. So they should be – their bread is so damn delicious, I was heartbroken when I ate my last slice an hour ago.

The whole mood of the Organic Food Festival was buzzy and warm. It’s a wonderful feeling to be involved in something which does the planet good. And is successful.

At the festival’s launch, Barny Haughton from sustainable gastro-paradise restaurant, Bordeaux Quay, said business had never been so good.

The recent food price rises are linked to the price of oil. The lynchpin of industrial farming is factory-made fertiliser, a process that relies entirely on burning oil.

In contrast organic farmers fertilise their fields naturally, courtesy of the sun, by using crop rotations, nitrogen-fixing clover and composting. As oil prices rise, organic farming becomes more profitable.

In an oil-depleted world, local organic is the future. Common sense, don’t you agree?

Our Daily Bread blog competition

Bread is one of the most messed-up foods on the planet. Made from hybridised wheat, grown for quick-machinability (forget taste, nutrition and digestion), modern bread is subjected to chemical processes you know nothing about.

If you want to freak yourself out, read the list of gunk in an ordinary loaf of sliced bread in Bread Matters by baker Andrew Whitley. Classified as non-nutritive processing aids, their job is not to feed you but to add texture, quickly. Hence the additives (including animal or GM-derived enzymes) do not legally need to be listed on the label.

In real food-world, you need four ingredients:  flour, water, a raising agent. The fourth is time. And the result, such as Emma’s bread (see above at Exeter’s farmers’ market), is tasty and sustaining.

Emma is teaching these skills at a breadmaking day at Occombe farm in Devon. If you join the Soil Association the day is free.

Or use a book to learn – I like Warren Lee Cohen’s Baking bread with children. And check the coming campaign for real bread.

Now for the competition. Food bloggers, what’s your favourite real food? Its tastes are enticing but not from a laboratory and it nourishes as nature intended.

The winning blogger (more details below) gets a copy of the new DVD, Our Daily Bread. Released on the 8 September 2008, this award-winning documentary observes without judgement and with an eye for beauty the world of intensive food production. Do we really know how food is made? Our Daily Bread shows what is usually hidden.

Here are the competition guidelines, and good luck, fellow food bloggers.

1. Write a blog on real food (it does not have to be about bread). One ingredient or a dish. Usually factory-made, but you eat the real thing. Baked beans, mashed potato, fresh fish and chicken Kiev come to mind. What’s yours? And extra points for local and organic ingredients.

2. Link it to this blog.

3. Post a comment on this (Our Daily Bread) blog displaying a link to your blog entry.

4. The deadline is October 8 2008 at midnight.

I look forward to hearing from you.