Organic farmer Helen Browning OBE is chief executive of the Soil Association, which is coming to the end of its 70th anniversary celebrations. The charity raises public awareness of the relationship between environmental and human welfare. Helen is best known in the Swindon area for running Eastbrook Farm in Bishopstone along with the village’s Royal Oak Pub and Helen Browning’s Chop House in Old Town.

MOST people are unaware of exactly what the Soil Association does or why.

Helen Browning is happy to explain a mission which began seven decades ago and continues to this day.

“It was established by a group of scientists, farmers and people interested in nutrition. It was really exploring the connection between the way in which we grow our food and the health of the people who eat our food.”

Some of that early research took the pioneering researchers to India.

“They found that different tribes growing their food in different ways had different degrees of health. They found that, in particular, the way in which some tribes composted and looked after their soil seemed to have a huge impact on the health of the people.

“That was the beginning of the whole connection between soil, plants, animals and people, which is what the Soil Association is all about.

“If we look after our soil, the soil looks after us. The soil is perhaps one of the most neglected resources.

“We only have this thin layer – six inches in most places.”

Failing to nurture soil, and to remember that it is a living ecosystem, has disastrous consequences according to the association.

Crop growth can be compromised and so can the landscape itself.

Erosion can cause, for example, soil to find its way into rivers and hamper the ability of fish to breed. There are instances – Helen cites parts of the Fens – where exhausted soil has disappeared, leaving roads standing alarmingly high above the surrounding land.

Promoting environmental awareness and organic cultivation is only part of the association’s work.

Helen said: “We work in schools and help kids to grow things. If kids can grow things, if kids grow beans or tomatoes, it can help them to understand the connection between soil and food and them.”

There is also work with hospitals to promote the provision of healthy meals instead of the unsatisfactory options – “grotty mush,” as Helen calls it – sometimes served.

“If we get our farming right, our NHS budgets will fall.”

Helen comes from a long line of farmers and took over the tenancy of Eastbrook Farm from her father in 1989. Only a year later, at the age of 28, she won a Farming Woman of the Year Award.

She had long since begun to develop her philosophy regarding the value of organic farming and caring for the land.

“As I grew up I could see the countryside I loved changing quite a lot, and the wildlife starting to disappear as the fields got ever bigger and we knocked out hedges. We were making way for bigger machines and we were spraying more.”

As early as 1986, Helen had begun converting sections of the 1,350 acre livestock and arable farm to organic production, and the process was completed in 1994.

In those days most people thought of organic farming – if they thought of it at all – as something anachronistic, unworkable and associated mainly with hippies and other idealists.

In 1990, in the midst of moving the farm to organic production, Helen told an Adver journalist: “People who have been working on the farm for a long time were apprehensive about change. I had to reassure them and teach them about organic farming.

“I have always been interested in the environmental effects of farming and the effects modern farming methods have on humans and animals.”

Since then, awareness of organic farming has grown immensely.

Helen said: “I think the big turning point for a lot of people was BSE in the mid-1990s. Suddenly people cottoned on that if we continued to do crazy things to our animals and our land, we were going to get some really nasty and perverse outcomes.

“People realised that we had been feeding our cattle the remains of cattle, which is something that’s unnatural.

“Since then there have been a lot of food scares and there have been lots of more positive messages – research showing the way we grow our food affects the nutritional quality of our food.”

Helen became chief executive of the Soil Association in in 2011, having already chaired the organisation in the 1990s. She has also served as Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, and is a past chair and still a member of the Food Ethics Council.

She has been a member of various key food and agriculture-related bodies including the Curry Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, the Meat and Livestock Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Helen chaired the England Implementation Group for the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy.

She was made an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.

Although Helen is happy with progress made, especially over the last 20 years or so, in promoting organic farming and environmental awareness among consumers, farmers and official bodies, there is still work to be done.

“Something like 40 per cent of our productive soil across the globe has now been degraded.”

All are welcome to join the Soil Association, and all, according to Helen, can do their bit for the soil.

Even people without so much as a postage stamp of garden to their name can make a difference by choosing organic produce whenever possible and lobbying politicians.

“It’s all about the food we’re eating.

“If we get farming and food right we can take some of the pressure off the NHS.”