#9: Helen Browning OBE on The Wisdom of Youth

My guest today is Helen Browning OBE, a pioneer of organic farming and currently Chief Executive of the Soil Association, a leading organic standards body. Helen also runs her family farm in Wiltshire and sells organic meat products in major supermarkets across the UK. 

I’ve known Helen for around twenty years as we’ve both been immersed in the sustainable agriculture and food movement. Helen’s played a leading role in the UK Government’s Policy Commission on Food and Farming, is a past Chair of the Food Ethics Council and currently serves on the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. She was awarded an OBE by the Queen in 1998 for services to agriculture.

Her passion and zeal are as strong as ever, as is her sense of humour. You’re in for a treat.

I caught up with Helen online from her farm in the UK. We talked about strong, gutsy female role models she saw as a child, turning her minority standing as a young, female, tenant farmer into a major advantage, the lack of role models in her life other than her younger self, the wisdom of youth (that we would do well to tap into better) and the importance of achieving ‘relaxed intensity’. Helen was also kind enough to provide us with a guest blog (see below)…you’ll see the interview’s prompted some reflection of her own…

The Wisdom of Youth and Other Important Matters

The conversation with Tony was thought provoking for me. Somehow we tripped into territory that I don’t usually discuss, and prompted a bit of further reflection for me afterwards.

For a start, I denied much involvement with mentors, perhaps thinking of them in a more ‘official’ capacity, and it is true, until recently I have not done much of this and even now, I’m a bit AC/DC about it. But of course I have had people in my life who have taken a sometimes -surprising- to-me interest in my career, and who have provided good council. There again, there’s part of me that needs to work it out for myself, and I know I value, and try to instil in others if I get the chance, an independent mind. I am wary of received wisdom, or pat answers, or conventional pathways; maybe that is a useful trait in people who want to bring about change. I like an insightful question, that I can then nurdle away at, and maybe come up with an angle that feels a little different.

I found myself talking about my young me, as a mentor to the rather older me. There’s something about the freshness of the outrage of the young that is compelling, when it is all too easy to start to become inured and cynical with a few more miles under your belt. On the whole, we don’t do enough to properly engage and give responsibility to the next generation. Our conversation reminded me to make more effort myself in this regard.

But I didn’t say enough about the benefits of age, perhaps even more valuable in women. It took me a long time to stop feeling that I was the junior member of whatever group I was in, that my unconventional route into this world of agri-politics and campaigning, and running an organisation meant that I should be tentative in my views…the typical imposter syndrome. I’m still not a dogmatic person, nor would I want to be; the world is complex, and there are few easy answers. Now though, is a good time of life. Some useful experience under the belt, a good sense of what I do well and less well, a bit less beating myself up about the failings….and still fired up about the importance of good food and good farming, without which we are doomed!

I’m not sure that I can give words of wisdom to others though. For me, I was lucky to find my cause early, and that it forced me into action- very practical action in converting my own farm to organic and trying to pioneer new and better ways of doing things. I could have happily stayed on the farm, building the businesses, an endless struggle in itself as all those who seek to make farming work financially know….but the opportunities to influence more widely came along very quickly. I’ve tried to use and build on the advantages and skills I have been lucky enough to have, and if I have made any kind of impact, it’s usually through finding great people and trying to give them the space and confidence to do brilliant things. Perseverance and resilience too, and catching the wind when it blows. There have been many times when it feels as though you are banging your head, and then suddenly…you can never quite predict how or when…the moment comes when change is possible. This feels like one of those moments in many walk of life, but especially in food, farming and the future of our countryside.

Find out more about Helen at https://www.linkedin.com/in/helen-browning-b9254035/

Tony Cooke

Tony Cooke is an internationally-recognised sustainability leader with over 25 years spent at the nexus of sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, developing and executing strategies for business, governments and not-for-profit organisations across a wide variety of sectors. He now manages a portfolio of interests including; senior corporate counsel, executive coaching, non-executive roles and thought leadership through a combination of research, writing and podcasting. Visit my personal blog at http://tonycooke.wordpress.com

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