Lady Eve Balfour a pioneer of organic farming

“If a nation’s health depends on the way its food is grown, then agriculture must be looked upon as one of the health services”, said Lady Eve Balfour (1898 – 1990), a formidable woman who pioneered organic farming in Britain.

In the 1930’s Lady Eve was discredited as a ‘crank’ for her forward-thinking views on farming but such was her strength of character and displaying a wry sense of humour, she countered, “a crank was a small and useful, inexpensive instrument that causes revolutions”, and that is just what she went on to do – revolutionising the concepts of organic versus chemical farming methods in a side-by-side experiment on her farm shortly before WWII. In 1943, her farming testament, The Living Soil, was published, becoming a surprise global hit and led to the foundation of the Soil Association.

Lady Eve was born in 1898 to Scottish nobility and was the niece of the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour.  She was an unlikely radicalist, brought up in a time when little was expected beyond marriage and children. But, at the age of 17, she became one of the first women to study for a diploma in Agriculture. At the age of 21 she bought a farm in Suffolk with her intended inheritance.

Not long after the Depression it was a precarious time to become a farmer. To raise extra money Lady Eve played the saxophone in an evening jazz band and co-authored a successful series of crime thrillers. One book was nearly lost when, transporting the manuscript on her motorbike, she rode so fast it flew out. It was later returned, page by page, which gave it its title: The Paper Chase.

Of all the experiments that Lady Eve Balfour undertook over the course of her long life, the one most likely to have baffled her neighbours was her investigation into whose urine was the most beneficial to compost: her own (alkaline) or that of her long-term companion, Kathleen Carnley (acidic).

Lady Eve was a determined young woman and led a successful revolt against the tithes farmers were obliged to pay. Ignoring the conventions of her time, she dressed in trousers when it was still taboo, lived companionably with women and men to whom she was not married, drove to agricultural shows in an adapted Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and learnt how to fly a Tiger Moth aeroplane. She travelled the world visiting farms and gave speeches well into her eighties.

Her claim that chemical inputs depleted, rather than added to, fertility was highly controversial in an age of agricultural intensification. Farmers were paid to use artificial nitrogen to increase production and any who refused faced the threat of foreclosure. Yet the woman described by her farming neighbour, John Horsman, as ‘formidable’ — an impression she gamely enhanced by sporting a piratical patch over a weak eye — was not to be taken lightly. Nor was she to be crossed. Mr Horsman recalls a time when he wanted to spray a herbicide. To avoid her wrath, he ‘got up early, at five’ to do so. That afternoon, he found himself cornered. ‘John!’ Lady Eve admonished. ‘I smell Methoxone in the air. What have you been doing?’ Although Lady Eve and Mr Horsman became friends, modern agriculture remained suspicious.

In 1990, a junior agriculture minister — John Gummer, now Lord Deben — included Lady Eve on the New Years’ Honours List. ‘A senior civil servant appeared and said: “No, no Minister. We cannot have any muck and magic here.” Mr Gummer insisted, but found, checking the final list, that her name was missing, which necessitated an appeal to the Prime Minister’s office to reinstate it. Lady Eve was awarded her OBE for services to British agriculture shortly before she died, aged 91.

Picture is of Lady Eve Balfour on a Ferguson tractor about 1925

Information taken from an article in Country Life magazine