Helen Browning's Letter

Dear Bob,

Your arrival into the world last Boxing Day was such a joy. My first grandchild, named after my beloved father. Being with you, I see the same enthusiasm for life that he always had, and an innocent expectation, engendered by loving parents and your first months spent in the fields here, with the cows that they tend, that your life will be a good one. I pray that this will be so.

You are born into troubled times, though, thankfully, you do not know this yet. Humanity is reaping the whirlwind of our inability to look beyond our short term needs and desires, to plan and invest for future generations. So we have destroyed the natural world, destabilised the climate, treated those outside our immediate tribe with disdain, and created a god with seemingly irrevocable power from a simple way to allow us to exchange our goods and services.

I and many, many others have spent our lives trying to change the path we are on, to shift the values humans live by. Right now, it feels as though we have mostly failed. In the UK, the current crises are eliciting calls for ‘more of the same but faster and harder’; ‘we will extract every ounce of oil and gas from the North Sea’ even as the whole world faces climate change chaos. Our politicians prevaricate over the wisdom of ensuring that every child has one decent meal a day while the costs of diet related ill health threaten to overwhelm the NHS. Despair is a legitimate response.

Yet, we as a family are some of the lucky ones. We live on the land, and have both the opportunity and responsibility to care for it, and through it, sustain ourselves and others. As farmers, we can and must think long term, even while the immediate pressures distract every day. We seek to balance the needs of people now, for food and fuel, with the imperative of making space for the wild creatures we share our land with, and the wellbeing of the animals under our care. We need to make a living, and that sometimes conflicts with the imperative to do what is right for the longer term. While the money god rules, we too often have to dance to his tune.

But on the little farm where you were born, I have tried to create an oasis of hope, a place that may sustain you and our community in the decades ahead. It is unpromising ground in many ways, heavy clay that waterlogs in winter and bakes hard in summer, but we are building resilience into the soils through pasture, and cattle, and trees. A chalk spring runs through it, so that you may always have water. There is some ancient woodland, so you may have shade and shelter, and some fuel for heat. And we have planted many trees in the fields, in an approach called ‘agroforestry’, that will provide the fruits, nuts and eventually timber that you may need. With our friends, we are growing vegetables and salads, and we’ll soon have chickens, and now that the soil is recovering, we can start to grow the wheat for your bread too.

Places like this may seem inefficient now. That will change. Farming in a way that allows nature to thrive alongside us, farming in a way that allows for a diverse diet without the need for chemicals, farming in a way that draws carbon back into the earth and its plants….this will be appreciated one day soon. And for you, my darling Bob, with your sunny disposition and extraordinary appetite for life, it may provide the chance for a productive and happy future. You will grow up with the trees that I have planted, even if I will never see them mature. This is what I dream of, a world where we see beyond our own lives, knowing that we are transient, only caretakers for those who follow.

Helen Browning, CEO, Soil Association

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