Here in England, the Soil Association had already been founded in 1946, soon after increasingly intensive farming methods became common practice after World War II. The Duchess became a supporter early on. How lucky, then, that when the Duchess’s son, Charles March, married Janet Astor, her daughter-in-law needed no conversion to this way of thinking.
“My uncle, David Astor, had founded the Organic Research Centre,” Lady March explains. “It was one of the top three in Europe. I was about 26 when I got involved with it. My mother had always been keen on her organic kitchen garden and proper composting. She was part of the hippy mindset, which was seen as a bit cranky back then.”
“I thought, ‘Aha, I’ve got an ally now!’” the Duchess laughs, and it’s obvious from the intense debate on composting that ensues – including Lady March’s support for “hot composting”, which chews up everything, not just vegetable matter – that these two generations of strong and thoughtful women speak as one.
“I couldn’t get anything done until Janet came along,” the Duchess continues. “It was a pincer movement on the men, who were worried it was non-commercial.” The long-running debate over the financial viability of organic farming rolls on, but, as Lady March says, “Everything is dependent upon the subsidies of the day and, most importantly, the route to market. We’re still in a minority, but there’s a really good market for organic meat and milk now. For premium produce, if it’s the best, you can make money. And you make a third more selling directly.”
One example of this? Today’s artisanal coffee-makers’ quest for the ideal milk with which to craft the perfect latte. It’s a global trend few would have predicted back in 1989 when the 10th Duke took over the running of the estate from his father (a transition repeated in 1994 when the Duke and Duchess passed on the baton to Lord and Lady March). As Lady March explains, “Our milk is unhomogenised, which means it tastes better. We also believe it is healthier. We’re proud of the freshness of our milk – it will often be drunk within 24 hours of our cows being milked.”
She continues: “All the specialist coffee shops were selling wonderful coffee, but they didn’t understand how much the quality of the milk they used could affect the taste. We sell raw milk direct from the farm; it’s full of probiotics, and we’ve never had a problem, because our herd is monitored so closely.”
Was it a slow process, implementing their beliefs and methods at Goodwood? Far from it, Lady March insists: “A lot of farms on the South Downs hadn’t used pesticides for their sheep, so it was easy. It took about 18 months, and we got advice from the ORC when we made the change on the farm, and took on a farm manager who was keen to do things this way. We had a wonderful shepherd, Nick Page, who understood it instinctively.”