Celebrating 70 years with the Soil Association

Whenever I asked my Grandmother about the early days of The Soil Association, conversation would often turn to Lady Eve Balfour, an inspiring character whom Granny would often describe as a “true warrior”.

It’s interesting to read The Living Soil now and see just how ahead of her time Lady Eve was. Many of her opinions on nutrition, the food we eat and the effect it has on us, whilst cutting edge in the 1940’s, are accepted wisdom today.

The Haughley Experiments still stand alone in their undertaking; the only occasion where a direct comparison has been made, on the same land, with the same crops, between organic and non-organic farming practices. I find it amazing that they do not attract more attention in the debate today about the future of farming, the food we eat and ultimately the planet we live on. 

Lady Eve’s pioneering work, and her foundation of The Soil Association with a small group of activist enthusiasts, shines as a bright light to the possibilities for the future. Granny and Grandfather were two of those activist enthusiasts. My Grandmother was a very astute businesswoman, and whilst there is no doubt that there was a keen commercial eye involved in turning the Aspall estate organic back in 1946, there is no question that the countrywoman in her knew the principles to be right, both for her land and the broader community. There is a line to be trod between high principles and commercial viability. 

Aspall became the first business to be accredited by The Soil Association as a producer and a processor.

When our Father took over the Aspall business in 1970, his one great asset was organic orchards and a long and rich organic history. He expanded the business from cyder in to organic apple juice and organic cyder vinegar, and Aspall became the first business to be accredited by The Soil Association as a producer and a processor. The health food trade of the ‘70’s were supportive recipients of his products, though all too many were longer on ideal than business acumen, and there were many struggles fuelled by bad debts. But even through these difficult times, he always fondly remembers many of the characters of the health food trade from that time – even if some of them couldn’t always pay their bills.

Our retail scene is now dominated by the supermarket giants, and Father’s keen eye for the commercial opportunity inherited from his mother, has resulted in long and beneficial relationships with all of the major players over the years. Most of this business was non organic; the supermarkets of the ‘80’s showed little interest in organic and health food and it would have been very easy through what became boom years for Aspall, to have allowed our organic status to drift away.  Being organic is not easy – it can be very expensive. But the question “why is organic food so expensive?” has always to be countered with “why is non-organic food so cheap?”

Good food is quite often expensive, and the benchmark we have always aspired to at Aspall is that the organic badge does not only inform you of how this food is made, it offers an expectation that it will be of great quality. We have a unique vinegar making process, pioneered by our Father in the ‘70’s – The Marjoribanks Method. All our organic cyder vinegar is made through these 4 towers – the only working examples in the world. They’re not as efficient as their modern day counterparts for sure, but the vinegar they produce, is more rounded and fuller flavoured.

Even after all these years, we continue to learn more about orcharding; there are 42 different apple varieties on the Aspall estate, of which 36 have often struggled with the local growing conditions – but we have 6 champions that will go on to form the vast majority of our crop moving forward. The apple, so adaptable and diverse in its genealogy, will always offer a variety that will thrive in specific conditions, and modern pomological advances allow us to trial these on different root stocks and under different growing regimes to find the optimum combination for organic growing in the coming years. 

It is hugely encouraging to see an increasing desire by consumers to understand where their food comes from, and it should be no surprise in this context to see the organic market in such good health today. This year, we celebrate 70 years from Granny and Grandfather becoming founder members of The Soil Association, a huge milestone in Aspall’s long history. Whilst we may be a long way from the “true warrior” status of Lady Eve, we remain committed to the principles she held, and the enthusiasm and energy with which she shared them

We're pleased to be celebrating Soil Association's Organic September this month.