Lady Eve Balfour: Organic Farming Queer’s Pioneer

Lady Eve Balfour, born into an aristocratic family in 1898, was not just a woman of noble heritage with a famous uncle—the former British Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour—but also a trailblazer who carved her own path as a working farmer, author, and the founder of the Soil Association.

Her life was marked by her pioneering ideas on the deep connection between healthy soil and overall well-being, an ethos that spread across the globe and helped sow the seeds of the organic movement.

Lady Eve Balfour’s Early Life

Lady Eve Balfour was born on July 16, 1898, in London into an influential British family. Her parents, Gerald William Balfour, the 2nd Earl of Balfour, and Betty, had 6 children; Eve was the youngest. 

The Balfour family was deeply rooted in British politics and academia. Her uncle, Arthur James Balfour, served as Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905 and was also known for the Balfour Declaration. 

Her father was an elected MP for the Conservative party. 

Her mother was a prominent Suffragist and was even elected as a council member in Surrey – one of the first women in the UK to hold elected positions. 

Despite her family’s political background – Lady Eve Balfour disliked politics from a young age. She once replied to a BBC answer, that her opinions on politics “can’t be broadcasted on the BBC”.  

However, growing up in such a privileged environment, did give Lady Eve access to education and opportunities that were rare for women at the time. 

While she dislike politics, from an early age, Lady Eve showed a strong interest in wildlife, farming and agriculture – as well as an extremely independent and inquisitive mind. 

When she was just 8, she decided to become a vegetarian after she saw a pheasant being shot during a hunt.  

At 12, she was riding a horse and decided that she was going to be a farmer. 

She received her education at home from a governesses and later she pursued studies in agriculture at University of Reading, which was quite unconventional for women of her class and era. She was, in fact, one of the first women to major in agriculture studies at the university there.

During the First World War, many men were off fighting, leaving a gap in agricultural labor that women, known as ‘land girls’, stepped up to fill. 

For Eve, this was a chance to throw herself into agricultural life.  This hands-on experience cemented her lifetime dedication to agriculture.

It also sparked her interest in sustainable farming methods. She grew concerned over soil erosion, declining crop yields, and the health implications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The Haughley Experiment – The Experiment That Validated Organic Farming

In 1939, armed with a passion for ecological balance and human health, Lady Balfour used her family’s wealth to acquire land in Suffolk. 

She wasn’t intent on just being a farmer – she wanted to test her ideas about natural agriculture, which many considered radical at the time. 

To test this, she set up the Haughley Experiment, which would run for over four decades, and would be instrumental in proving the merits and benefits of organic agriculture. 

Lady Balfour’s approach was revolutionary for its time, as it sought to evaluate not just immediate productivity but also long-term sustainability.

The experiment was set up on three adjacent plots, each managed under different farming systems—organic, stockless, and mixed. 

  • Organic Plot
    • Utilized composted manure and crop rotations.
    • Avoided synthetic chemicals.
    • Employed biological pest control methods.
  • Stockless (Conventional) Plot
    • Relied on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
    • Practiced monoculture cropping
  • Mixed Plot
    • Combined elements of both organic and conventional methods
    • Integrated livestock to utilize manure as fertilizer.

Under Lady Balfour’s guidance, the team meticulously recorded data on soil health, crop yields, pest and disease incidence, and biodiversity. 

The objective was to create a robust dataset that could withstand scientific scrutiny and provide real-world insights into farming practices.

The findings from the Haughley Experiment were instrumental in demonstrating the viability of organic farming. They showed that organic methods could maintain soil fertility and support diverse ecosystems while producing competitive yields.

Lady Eve Balfour: How She Founded the Soil Association

Using the insights from the Haughley Experiment, she set her sights on teaching the world the benefits of organic farming.

In 1943, against the backdrop of World War 2, she published “The Living Soil”. The central idea was revolutionary for its time: the health of soil, plants, animals, and humans are interconnected, ultimately influencing one another’s condition. 

The book encapsulated her vision: the health of soil, plants, animals, and people is interlinked. It wasn’t just a theory; it was a call to rethink our relationship with the Earth. 

Despite the war, her book found international success. 

This led her to create the Soil Association in 1946, an organization that has since bloomed into a global influencer on organic farming practices. This was not a passive intellectual exercise for Lady Eve; it was her life’s mission. 

Despite the post-war agricultural policies favoring artificial fertilization and yield maximization, Lady Eve’s ideas eventually took root, germinating a rich harvest of environmental awareness and practice.

Lady Eve Balfour’s Life Was More Then Just Organic Farming

It wasn’t just her revolutionary agricultural insights that set her apart, but also her vibrant personal life and artistic ventures. 

She lived with her partner Beryl Herndon and her sister on her farm in Suffolk.

Balfour used to dress in a masculine form, and was often mistaken for a man – a fact she enjoyed and took pride in. Her brother, however, wasn’t so happy and once wrote to her “that being mistaken for a gentleman is not something to take delight in”. 

When she wasn’t farming, she also acted in amateur dramatics, toured in a jazz band (they even had a sell-out tour in Brighton once), and wrote a series of crime thrillers bestsellers under the pseudonym ‘H. B. Herron’. 

Legacy and Recognition

Lady Eve’s relentless efforts laid the groundwork for the current shift toward environmentally responsible and regenerative farming practices. While initially received with cynicism and dismissed by policymakers, her philosophies now align closely with modern environmental concerns and organic farming methods.

On January 16, 1990, Lady Eve passed away at the age of 91. 

With a voice likened to a “drill sergeant” and often mistaken for a man due to her towering presence, Lady Eve Balfour left behind a legacy that echoes her belief in revolutions being caused by non-violent cranks—those inexpensive, unassuming tools that lead to pivotal change. 

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