The following article by Tiffany Daneff appeared in a September 1999 issue of The Daily Telegraph newspaper...
We walk through fields of gold - Trudie Styler tells Tiffany Daneff why converting her farm in Wiltshire to organic is a natural progression...
'Is it costly? Yes. If you go organic, I think you've got to realise that it is labour intensive but, in return, we are self-sufficient for seven months of the year. I know that there hasn't been a pesticide or fertiliser put into the soil, so I can rest assured that every meal I eat here I can eat with serenity. And that counts for a lot."
Trudie Styler is curled up on a large sofa in the wood-panelled sitting-room of Lake House, a stunningly beautiful Jacobean manor on the banks of the River Avon, in Wiltshire. She's tired, having been up till the small hours talking to her husband, Sting, who had broken off from his world tour to spend a night at home. He has since gone away again, their two youngest children, Coco, nine, and Giacomo, three, have already flown to America with the nanny, and Trudie will follow in a few days. Lake House is the family's main home. Trudie discovered it in 1991 while Sting was on a tour of America. She rang him, raved about it on the telephone and, on the strength of her conviction, he agreed that they should buy.
The decision to go organic seems also to have been largely hers. It is something she has long wanted to do. "My father was a labourer on my uncle's farm, which was about a two-mile walk from where we lived," she says. She grew up in Stoke Prior, in Worcestershire.
"He was actually a cousin of my mother's, but we always called him uncle. When my father married my mother and had children, he could no longer afford to work on the farm for three quid a week. It was the beginning of his demise really. He'd had that wonderful life and then had to go and work in a chemical factory and recently his health has suffered terribly."
This legacy has left Trudie with uncompromising views on the importance of an organic diet. "I take very seriously all these nightmare stories about salmonella, listeria and BSE," she says, leaving one in no doubt of the strength of her emotions. "They are potential dangers for my children. I feel that we have been betrayed by the food industry and that the time has come when consumers must demand better food."
To that end, she contacted the Soil Association for advice in going fully organic. Not just in the old walled kitchen garden, but in the lawns and flower beds, the water meadows and woodlands and the fields surrounding the house, where pigs, sheep, goats, horses and cattle contentedly graze. For when she talks about being self-sufficient, she doesn't mean just digging up enough potatoes and greens for the family, but producing meat, eggs, honey, as well as milk, butter, cream and cheese. Even trout, which have recently been introduced into the lake that the couple dug in the watermeadow. It is an impressive undertaking but one which would be impossible without help. Trudie employs four full-time gardeners and a farmer, because she is busy working as executive producer on two films, 'Greenfingers', starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirren, and the new Guy Ritchie film, starring Brad Pitt. "I travel a lot," she says, "and the time I spend here is really devoted to the children."
It took two years to gain their first Soil Association certificate. "What I don't understand," Trudie says, "is why the Government, instead of offering set aside, which just pays farmers for doing nothing, doesn't pay them to convert because, once you've set aside land, all you have to do is sow some mixed grasses and clovers and you're in your first year of conversion. It usually takes two years, sometimes three, depending on how weak the soil has become, how poisoned it is."
Twice they've lost their certificate. "The first time was because we hadn't got organic feed for the animals and so their excreta was contaminating the soil." On the second occasion, they sprayed some nettles with weedkiller and again this temporarily lost them their organic status. "It would have been better to have six people pull up the weeds, but it was a very good lesson."
Gordon Maskery, the head gardener, had 20 years' experience working for the Worldwide Fund for Nature before joining Lake House seven years ago. "The vegetable garden was little more than a weed patch then," he says, as he shows me round the three greenhouses where organic seeds are germinated and brought on. "We dug and weeded out the dock and nettles by hand and rotavated the ground numerous times to remove the weed roots." Gordon estimates they put 30 tons of home-produced compost into the garden over a year, plus another 10 tons of farmyard manure. Apart from pelleted chicken manure, this is the main source of plant food. Maxicrop seaweed extract is sprayed on the foliage to keep it healthy, Savona soap spray sees off caterpillars, while neem oil repels insects and Encarsia formosa kills the white fly. They seem to do the trick.
The rows are bushy with exotic cabbages, onions, legumes and potatoes, while this summer the two apricot trees in the greenhouse produced a couple of hundred fruit. "We have to be productive," says Gordon. "Sometimes they'll send down two or three wheelbarrows a day for fruit and veg." This is cooked by the family's resident chef, Joe Sponzo, who travels the world with Sting and Trudie.
Peppers, aubergine, cucumbers and mizuna, the Japanese leaf, are grown in polytunnels. "We grow the mizuna under cover to protect it from flea beetle," says Gordon. "We also grow a terrific amount of herbs under growlamps all year round."
To ensure that the soil remains as pure as possible, watering (other than with rain collected in butts) is kept to a minimum. "The water contains fluoride," explains Gordon.
Though Trudie is very fond of the animals, they do use them. She is, however, at pains to ensure that meat is never wasted. "I probably eat meat only twice a week," she says. She never orders meat in restaurants because she does not know its origins.
As we walk along the banks of the river, a kingfisher flies out. The birds, she says, have returned in numbers since the organic experiment and she is so pleased with the results that her next project is to turn the land at their house in Italy organic. "Then," she adds, "who knows - we might even be able to produce our own organic wine."
© The Daily Telegraph