Monday, 23 September 2013

...and for those who don't know of these pioneering women!

Lady Evelyn Barbara “Eve” Balfour (1898-1990) decided at the early age of 12 to become a farmer. She had perhaps been expected to fulfil quite a different destiny as the daughter of the 2nd earl of Balfour - a Conservative MP, and as the niece of Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905. At the age of 17, in 1915, she began a Diploma in Agriculture at Reading University. Upon completion she set off to try hill farming in Monmouthshire. After struggling in the west of the country she turned her sights on the east and, with her sister Mary, bought New Bells Farm, Haughley Green in 1919. Despite a reputation in those days as “a bright young thing” – she was a saxophonist, sailor, pilot and author of crime fiction – she showed her serious side with her campaigning during the Tithe Wars of the depressed 1930s. It was around this time that she bought Wassicks, Haugh and Walnut Tree farms for a song. Walnut Tree farm was subsequently leased to her friend, Alice Debenham, who later bought it and renamed it Walnut Tree Manor. Lady Eve and Alice began to read up and develop ideas about the relationship between food, health and the soil. In 1939 they began The Haughley Experiment and set up the Haughley Research Trust. In 1946 Lady Eve became the co-founder and first president of the Soil Association.

Lady Eve, by Mary Eastman


Alice Debenham, by Alison Edith Le Plat

Alice Debenham was born in Hampstead in 1867. By 1911, in her forties, she may have been farming in that area. If she had any claim to fame in those days it was as the grand-daughter of the founders of Debenhams Store, Debenham & Freebody as it was known then. After beginning their collaboration on the Haughley Experiment, Lady Eve was to refer to her as the movement’s Sir Walter Raleigh. In her 1943 book, The Living Soil, Lady Eve explained that first come those who make initial discoveries, and after them people of vision, prepared in the face of all difficulties, to prove that the discoveries are worth official recognition:

“As an example, one might cite Columbus, who discovered America, and Raleigh, who founded the first English colony.”

If Lady Eve had been organic farming’s Columbus, then 
“it has had at least one Raleigh too, in the person of the late Alice Debenham.  The tragedy is that she died at the very outset of her great purpose, leaving to others the task of bringing to fruition the seed she sowed.”

Lady Eve goes on:  
“A practical farmer, trained in science and medicine, and during the latter years of her life an invalid, Alice Debenham saw very clearly the potential importance of the evidence concerning soil fertility and health.  She saw equally clearly that this scattered evidence must be collected and reproduced under controlled conditions if it were to convince the scientific world, and that unless science is convinced, Government will not act. Outstandingly public spirited, she founded a Research Trust to carry out this work.” 
Alice Debenham died in 1940.                                      

Walnut Tree Manor remained HQ of the Soil Association until October 1985.

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