Organic farming in South Devon

Organic farming is another area where perhaps surprising Dartington did not play a directly significant pioneering role. Whilst it did support the Yarner Trust in the late seventies, by then there was already a burgeoning organic scene within the area. Of course again there were key Dartington people involved in this scene not least Ray Lance (a key Soil Association activist) and Dick Kitto, who had an organic orchard back in the 1960s. There were other Dartington connections but as an institution it did not take the lead, as detailed below.

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As early as winter of 1969/70 there was a debate in the pages of the Dartington Hall News about the merits of organic agriculture, with the incumbent farmer at Dartington’s Parsonage Farm, Ronald Hawtin, vocal in his defence of the status quo and the economic logic which underpinned it. To this debate, Maurice Ash added his voice, stating that he did not think that ‘the cultivation of a patch of organic farm land at Dartington could contribute much’ to the debate about organic agriculture and the despoliation of the environment. In fact, it does seem that as the 1970s progressed Dartington did begin to engage in small scale organic experimentation, not only at Yarner Trust but also on a farm at Rattery near Dartington. However, it was not until late in 1993 that plans were announced for the whole 600 acres of the Dartington estate to be put into organic conversion after three years of discussion, only for these to be subsequently abandoned.

Possibly the first organic farmer in that area of South Devon was Roger Jones who farmed at Lipton Farm in East Allington. Jones started farming organically in 1969. His inspiration was not found within the local counterculture or from Dartington, but from his father in law, Rex Poyntz-Roberts, a retired Squadron Leader who had bought a farm in the hills of Wales. Jones’ principal motivation for farming organically was because he could not justify the expenditure on fertilizers, not out of a strong ideological commitment to the idea. During the 1970s there were a few other small scale organic growers in the area. Some of these did have connections to Dartington, such as Ollie Bosence, son of a Dartington School teacher, and David Lance, son of Roy, the school Burser and Soil Association activist. Others such as Charles Staniland had gravitated to the area after attending the nearby Seale Hayne agricultural college. In 1979 Staniland and Boscene got together and formed the Devon Organic Growers Co-operative, receiving a grant from the Dartington Trust to help establish themselves. By 1981 there was 25 organic growers involved and over 70 acres of land used to produce organic fruit and vegetables. The group sold to local businesses and also used a novel form of distributions which involved dropping off produce at three private homes in Ashburton, Totnes and Plymouth, inspired by a similar scheme in Switzerland. This was in some was a precursor to the box scheme. They did also sell their produce on a stall at the Dartington Farm Foods shop. This group of growers were a formative influence on Guy Watson who later established the very successful Riverford Organic Vegetables.

The roots of Riverford Organic Vegetables, lies within Riverford Farm which John Watson started renting in the 1950s from the Church Commissioners. Starting with 120 acres he later expanded to incorporate two other farms giving a total acreage of around 500 acres. In its earlier years Riverford was part of a scheme involving ICI whereby it was a model for chemical based industrial agriculture. John Watson’s own conversion to organic methods was triggered primarily by reading alternative literature than by exposure to a local alternative culture. It was therefore the Ecologist and its Blueprint for the Future written by Edward Goldsmith that underpinned the development of an ecological consciousness within Watson. During the 1970s he experimented with self-sufficiency and diversification (farm tours) before, in the 1980s his children worked with him to initiate a range of organic agricultural and food-based enterprises. In summary, in the 1970s there was only limited organic production in the Totnes area and the area cannot really be said to have be particularly pioneering in this respect. Indeed the first edition of Seed has a feature on the west country organic scene which makes no mention of Totnes or Dartington, instead focusing on places such as Bristol, Bath and Glastonbury.

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