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Sarah Langford on Eve Balfour, The Living Soil, Slightly Foxed 82

Earth Works

I begin with a confession: my discovery of The Living Soil (1943) by Lady Eve Balfour was an accident. A few years ago, I unexpectedly left my life as a barrister-turned-writer and moved from London to Suffolk with my two small children. Together with my husband I took on the running of his family’s 250-acre arable and pasture farm.

I had grown up in a farming family – my grandparents had been post-war farmers in Hampshire, my father a land agent – but the world in which I now found myself was very different to the one I remembered. Where my grandfather had been considered a hero for feeding a nation made hungry by war, now farmers were held responsible for a growing list of ecological ills.

The statistics were against them: 95 per cent of our food is still grown in soil, yet 40 per cent of land worldwide has been degraded, largely through agriculture. We now produce a quarter more food than is actually needed to feed the global population, and of this up to 40 per cent is wasted. Agriculture is responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers pollute our rivers and seas and have had an enormous impact on biodiversity. Globally, while yields have plateaued, pests and diseases have become resistant to the sprays designed to kill them. The modern farmer, I discovered, having just become one, was at a crossroads.

But while I read article after article about the need to rewild our land, I knew that in Suffolk, our fertile clay soils could grow food in abundance. Turning them over to wilderness felt as irresponsible as intensive chemical farming. And so I set about the project as a lawyer would, reading everything I could about how to farm in a way which restored natural systems rather than depleted them. Organic farming seemed to offer a solution. So it was that I came across The

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I begin with a confession: my discovery of The Living Soil (1943) by Lady Eve Balfour was an accident. A few years ago, I unexpectedly left my life as a barrister-turned-writer and moved from London to Suffolk with my two small children. Together with my husband I took on the running of his family’s 250-acre arable and pasture farm.

I had grown up in a farming family – my grandparents had been post-war farmers in Hampshire, my father a land agent – but the world in which I now found myself was very different to the one I remembered. Where my grandfather had been considered a hero for feeding a nation made hungry by war, now farmers were held responsible for a growing list of ecological ills. The statistics were against them: 95 per cent of our food is still grown in soil, yet 40 per cent of land worldwide has been degraded, largely through agriculture. We now produce a quarter more food than is actually needed to feed the global population, and of this up to 40 per cent is wasted. Agriculture is responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers pollute our rivers and seas and have had an enormous impact on biodiversity. Globally, while yields have plateaued, pests and diseases have become resistant to the sprays designed to kill them. The modern farmer, I discovered, having just become one, was at a crossroads. But while I read article after article about the need to rewild our land, I knew that in Suffolk, our fertile clay soils could grow food in abundance. Turning them over to wilderness felt as irresponsible as intensive chemical farming. And so I set about the project as a lawyer would, reading everything I could about how to farm in a way which restored natural systems rather than depleted them. Organic farming seemed to offer a solution. So it was that I came across The Living Soil. Eighty years ago, the book had sparked a global movement and led to one of the most important experiments in organic farming on land just twelve miles from our farm. Its author, Lady Eve Balfour, had become convinced that the health of the soil, plants, animals and man are interlinked. They form a natural chain, and each is dependent on the others. As the daughter of landed gentry and the niece of the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, Lady Eve seemed destined for a well-connected marriage and children. Instead, she decided at the age of 12 that she wanted to farm. She was one of the first women to attend agricultural college, and she went on to run a requisitioned farm during the First World War (lying about her age, so as to be eligible) before buying a farm in Haughley, near Stowmarket in mid-Suffolk. There she created a rural version of the Bloomsbury set, filling the farmhouse with her female partners, her sister and farmhands, and forming both an amateur dramatic society and a jazz band that kept the farm solvent during the Great Depression. Fiercely independent and with a sharp, scientific mind, Balfour had become convinced that the new agrochemicals and artificial fertilizers embraced by both her neighbours and the government caused long-term harm to the soil and – when we ate the food grown in it – to our health. The Living Soil set out her hypothesis. It had a huge impact and led to the creation of the Soil Association, of which she was a co-founder. The Association went on to oversee Balfour’s twenty-year experiment in which she, with the assistance of scientists, compared the results of organic and chemical farming: it was the first of its kind. The results were published in a reissue of her original book, entitled The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment, in 1975. That book has now long been out of print, but I tracked down a copy online. It landed on my doorstep in shades of brown, cream and ochre. Attached to the bookplate by two yellowed strips of Sellotape was a photograph of Balfour. She looked pleasingly eccentric, with cropped grey hair and wearing a voluminous dress patterned with yellow and red flowers, the right-hand lens of her spectacles blacked out. She also wore a broad grin which was unexpected in someone who had twice been arrested, could both ride a motorbike and fly a Tiger Moth plane, had written a bestselling series of crime fiction novels with her female partner, and had a voice like a drill sergeant. Those who knew her described her as ‘formidable’. Looking at the book, I could not understand why, given its impact and relevance to current debates about soil degradation and global warming, it had been overlooked for so long. And then I began to read. I had, I suppose, been forewarned about the book’s unreadability in the only biography which exists of Balfour. Written (and self-published) by Michael Brander, a great-nephew by marriage, it is not especially objective. It does, however, quote a review of the 1975 edition which laments:
If only Lady Balfour could construct a book, or if only her publishers had been tougher as editors, what a much more readable, informative and evangelistic book this new edition of The Living Soil would be . . . Lady Balfour eschews the personal narrative that could so hold the lay reader who loves to know about farming without getting mud on his boots . . . instead we get what reads like a pile of notes from which a fascinating book might one day be written.
The reviewer was not, apparently, alone in his view. The reprint was not a commercial success, and the 1,500 copies sent for sale in America were all eventually returned unsold. Yet while The Living Soil undoubtedly lacks a compelling personal narrative and is hampered by a clunky structure (the final third of the reissue comprises collated appendices of evidence), the conclusions of the first part – which reproduces Balfour’s original 1943 text – are astonishingly percipient. The recent Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi and Merlin Sheldrake’s bestselling book Entangled Life (2020) might give the impression that the importance of fungal networks, or mycelium, is a new discovery. Yet Balfour set out their critical role in delivering nutrients to the roots of plants and protecting them from disease eighty years ago. The middle third of the book describes the farming experiment brought about by The Living Soil. Much of this section consists of quotes from the scientist evaluating Balfour’s data rather than her own voice, yet once again her conclusions are fascinating. For more than twenty years, she ran three average-sized farms: one with animals and chemicals, a second without animals and with chemicals, and a third with animals and without chemicals. She had to get official dispensation to farm without artificial nitrogen from a government still bent on increasing food production. Thanks to monthly soil tests by a biochemist, Balfour was able to show that in the organic farm, the levels of available minerals fluctuated according to the season. The same was not true of the land in the chemical section. In layman’s terms, the soil is alive (and chemicals can kill it). I already knew before reading the book that after two decades of the farm experiment, times had changed. It was not just that the scientific analysis was proving expensive. There was a sense among some that those now in charge of the Soil Association failed to properly understand the value of the research they had set underway. Whether or not this was true, in 1967 the Soil Association’s funding for Haughley was withdrawn. According to her biographer, Balfour’s publishers had immense difficulty in dragging the revised 1975 copy out of their author. By then she was travelling all over the world giving lectures. This perhaps explains why it feels like a book of two halves rather than one where trouble has been taken to reflect, weaving old and new. It feels less like an account of a ground-breaking experiment to show the world the benefits of a biologically active soil, and more like a series of detail-heavy responses to those who thwarted the experiment which proved this. The clue is in her final chapter, in which she admits that the revised book was ‘compiled mainly for Soil Association members’. Much is given over to explaining the methods and the limits of traditional analysis on an experiment which tries to evaluate circularity. As she herself concludes, the challenge in fitting the complexities of measuring a cycle into the rules of modern science ‘bedevilled the Experiment throughout its life, ultimately bringing it to an end’. I, as a modern reader, was looking for the drama that I knew lay behind the text. In the 1970s, a coup had taken place at the Soil Association which resulted in Balfour leaving its board. I was, however, left wanting. While she admits that ‘the issue aroused strong feelings on both sides’, in the main, she rises above it. This is, she stresses, very much ‘a report on findings’ and not a story: ‘no very useful purpose would be served by going into them in detail here’. It is hard to resist thinking: more’s the pity. Perhaps I am being unfair. Stylistically it is of its time, whereas I am spoiled by the engaging and compelling prose of contemporary non-fiction. However, what is clear is that The Living Soil’s conclusions could not be more prescient. While corporations like Nestlé, Unilever and Pepsico fall over themselves to adopt ‘regenerative farming practices’, and celebrities talk about the need to ‘save our soils’, Balfour got there long ago. As she writes, the Haughley Experiment set out to discover:
to what extent . . . nature and man, working together in harmony, [can] establish a similar biological balance [to wilderness] amongst the living organisms involved in an agricultural food chain which, by its very nature, must be subject to a large degree of human interference.
Today, climate change brings floods and droughts while experts and global bodies warn of the need to restore the natural systems on which we depend for clean air, clean water and healthy food. Nearly a century after Balfour set out her principles in The Living Soil, they have been adopted by policymakers: post-Brexit, the UK government is replacing EU farm subsidies (payments for land) with payments for farming sustainably. This new national experiment, arising out of Balfour’s original quest, makes it all the more regrettable that her story could not have been made more engaging. Perhaps if it had, we would have heeded her words and her work a very long time ago.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Sarah Langford 2024


About the contributor

Sarah Langford is the author of Rooted: How Regenerative Farming Can Change the World (2022).

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