“[Patrick] Holden’s day job, for 15 years, was heading the UK’s premier organic food charity, the Soil Association, with Prince Charles among his green pals during critical years for British food. While he was in charge, the charity’s staff rose from five to over 180, and sales of organic produce in the UK grew from £50m to £2bn. But when he retired in 2011, handing over the reins to fellow farmer Helen Browning, he’d had his fill of that organic binary system where you’re either certified, or you’re not. He astounded conventional farmers when – on his way out at the Soil Association – he more or less apologised for an ‘us’ and ‘them’ system of food production. “Perhaps we have upset the conventional farming community by continually saying we were right and they were wrong,” Holden said at the Wales Organic Producers’ Conference in October 2010. “We should not be out there thinking and talking of ourselves as organic farmers, because that separates us from the rest of the farming community.”
He rightly gauged there was an appetite among the nation’s farmers for a less draconian yet sustainable approach, and promptly set up the Sustainable Food Trust. Investigative journalist and best-selling author Eric Schlosser, along with Holden’s West Welsh organic neighbour Peter Segger, are on the board of directors. The Trust gives Holden the latitude to talk soil and ‘true cost’ economics – such as the real price of nitrogen fertilisers – with farmers and food producers, and to be less fixated on the marketing of organic labels. He would like to introduce a sustainable index for farms to work their way through and thinks even ideological chasms should be talked through. This is something Holden excels at….”
“…But that’s the interesting thing about Holden: you have the pragmatic farmer mixed with the biodynamic believer. “We’re hopefully nearing the end of chemical farming,” he says, sounding a little Pollyanna-ish. “… which of course Steiner was on about in 1924.”
This reference was inevitable. At some point in conversation with Holden, the philosopher Rudolph Steiner will always make an appearance. It tends to drive those who think that ‘magical thinking’ and anthroposophy have no place in sustainable agriculture completely nuts, and I have heard Holden referred to sniffily as a ‘biodynamic intellectual’. He tells me about the need for restoring soil vitality by going further than organic with homeopathic preparations, planting and harvesting, and taking into account the movement of the sun and the moon against the background of the planets in order to capitalise on favourable circumstances.
“Now we’re getting into the esoteric, right?” he says. “Some might say ‘twaddle’,” I volunteer helpfully. Undeterred, he references the experiments of the late Agnes Fyfe – who claimed to demonstrate the effect of the movement of the planets on plant sap – and a recent lecture he attended along the same lines. “Was it given by a biologist?” “No,” he replies, “and she wouldn’t have got her research published inNature, and that’s the problem isn’t it? We’re obsessed with this scientific validation, but all science is built on hypotheses that comes out of observation and very often it takes years before a scientific hypothesis is proven to the point where it becomes an orthodoxy.”
Still, it is notable that despite being head of the UK’s biodynamic association his farm is not biodynamic, and when he sells sustainable agriculture to farmers, he tends to talk pragmatically about the true cost of nitrogen fertilisers rather than homeopathic soil preparations….”