Patrick Holden

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association since 1995, has been involved in the organic movement for 28 years, initially as a full time organic farmer (1973-1988) and for the last 14 years working for the Soil Association.

Aged 51, he retains his farming interest as a partner on a 230 acre mixed organic farm in west Wales which produces milk from 60 Ayrshire cows and grows carrots.

He was a member of the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) Board (1987-1999) and has international experience of organic standards as chair of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) Accreditation Committee (1988-1992).

He is a regular broadcaster, speaker and writer on organic food and farming issues and is a member of the Countryside Agency?s ?Eat the View? National Advisory Panel.

Man of the Soil

Patrick Holden, part-time farmer and director of the Soil Association, explains to Catey Hillier of Waitrose, why going organic made sense for him. Portrait by Toby Glanville.

Sitting behind his battered wooden desk in the Soil Association's Bristol offices, Patrick Holden is wearing brown leather brogues. They speak of a brisk walk in the country. In contrast to his rather serious tweed suit, he wears a 'themed' tie, speckled with baby carrots (organic, of course) and a white rabbit - more the sort of item worn by city traders.

Women's magazines declare you can tell a man by his choice of tie and shoes. This unlikely analysis slots him into the Country Man About Town category, which is, in fact, a pretty accurate description of a man who has his roots in the soil, yet was born in London. Twenty-six years of organic farming account for his links with the country and go some way to explaining his deep understanding of the complex social and economic issues affecting food producers today. And, his part-country, part-townie existence has provided perfect training for his role as director of the Soil Association, the charity which campaigns for sustainable organic farming and responsible forestry.

"My very urban childhood was spent looking out onto the countryside, yearning to make contact with it. Then, in the 60s, my family bought a house on the Isle of Skye. I started to love wild places. I was always fond of animals, and had pets upon pets: frogs, newts, red budgerigars. Every time we moved house, we got a new garden and I'd dig a new pond.

"It was my desire to connect with the countryside that attracted me to farming. The first chapter of my career started in 1973, when I became a farmer in west Wales, literally milking cows. Why Wales? Cheap land and it's very beautiful. It is Britain's California.

"We couldn't find a local market for our organically grown vegetables, so I used to load up my Citro?n Dyane and drive to London once a week to deliver to Cranks and wholefood shops. Our organic wheat was ground by a friend who owned a mill. We'd sell it to a wholefood shop in Aberystwyth. It's amazing to think there were so few outlets for organic foods then.

"When I joined the Soil Association full-time in 1988 - chapter two of my life - my involvement in the farm had to become more marginal. I do go back there every second weekend though, and I still assist in the managing and planning. It keeps my feet on the ground. Practical farming experience allows me to speak with authority on a subject which, up until recently, was viewed with suspicion."

There's no questioning Holden's knowledge of "kinder farming systems", and his belief that organic agriculture - no pesticides, no herbicides, no routine use of antibiotics, and no genetically modified "anything" - makes for better quality foods. His commitment to organically produced food and its environmental, health and rural benefits is unquestionable: he has been shouting about the pluses of organic food and farming for decades. And, the fact that organic food and drink is so widely available in Britain today is in no small part due to his vision and drive. He humbly puts it down to BSE, E-coli and the rash of recent food scares.

"I always thought there would be a significant change, that organic food would one day come of age, but I never imagined it would be quite this sudden. BSE was the single event that made everyone think about the food we eat and where it comes from, in a way they've never done before. Now we've all got PhDs in BSE after reading acres of print devoted to it, but how much has been written about finding a solution?

"The Soil Association has created an informed body of opinion. We told a story and made the issues accessible to the public through campaigns for everything such as better food-labelling and sustainable forestry, and against genetically modified food. We also opened demonstration farms for visitors to see organic farming in action. Conventional farming has lost its way. As a result, we've now got one of the strongest markets in Europe for organic food and drink. Unfortunately, we've also got a tiny production base." He's referring to the fact that up to two-thirds of organically grown produce is imported and goes on to explain what he believes needs to be done to underpin British organic farming.

"Farmers respond to economic signals, and so far the signals coming from MAFF about organic farming have been unclear. Farmers, being a canny lot, think they might get a bit of support during the two-year conversion period. Fine. But suppose a lot of farmers convert, and premiums go down because the market is oversupplied? They need signs of long-term confidence before they will commit.

"The food minister acknowledged his interest in organic farming at the Cirencester Soil Association conference earlier this year, but now he needs to put his money where his mouth is. But it's not up to him, it's up to Tony Blair. Blair's wife has realised the benefits of organic food, but I'm not sure he has yet."

An account of how the PM acknowledged his lack of understanding of the subject clearly amuses Patrick. "At one of those prime-minister-meets-the-people sessions, I stood there with my hand up like a schoolboy and asked why, when there is so much interest in our food policy post-BSE, the Government is not doing more to support organic farming. The meeting happened to be in Wales, so I quoted a few statistics. The level of support for Wales is pitiful. There was a pause and Blair said he wasn't going to answer my question because he didn't know enough about it, so he'd write to me. An honest answer. But I got a letter from a middle-ranking civil servant. I'd heard it all before.

"I hope Blair will see me to talk about the strength of public interest in organic food and farming sometime soon. Does he realise there are votes in it? Food quality and safety are inextricably linked to environmental sustainability and most people's lives are touched by that. After all, we all eat three times a day and the public are increasingly realising the connection between food and health - that's what the Soil Association is all about."

Patrick predicts that the organic sector will grow by a further 30 per cent in the next decade. "That's a far cry from my days doing the 500-mile round-trip in my Citro?n to the Big Smoke to seek out shops to sell my organic food. Now even the Prince of Wales is one of our patrons."

Patrick Holden

Toby Glanville

"I always thought there would be a significant change, that organic food would one day come of age, but I never imagined it would be quite this sudden."

Soil Association

Waitrose Interview


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