23rd December 2019
Britain's first regenerative farm?
Meet Land Army girl and would-be farmer Elizabeth Henderson, or rather the actor – Rebecca Bailey – who played her in my stage show No Finer Life. It tells the story of Britain’s most famous wartime farm and the young Somerset woman who dreamt of a life on the land.
Take a look at this charming illustration of the farm. It was printed on the inside covers of George Henderson’s best-selling book, The Farming Ladder. It shows the crops and animals in the fields of his small Cotswold farm in 1943, the year before publication.
It’s a charming picture with its cows and sheep, chickens and horses, not to mention the wildlife. There’s definitely a touch of the Beatrix Potter about it. It would be easy to dismiss it as a sentimental glimpse at a style of farming now long outdated. Surely it has no place in the modern world with its vastly increased demand for food?
Yet in its day this little farm of just 87 acres produced more food per acre than almost any farm in Britain. In fact it was so productive that the Ministry of Agriculture bused in hundreds of farmers to show them the way to feed the nation in wartime. With no pesticides and few chemical fertilisers, George and his brother Frank built up the fertility of their little farm using entirely natural methods. That’s why as well as producing copious amounts of food it remained rich in wildlife.
Take another look at the illustration by renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. You’ll notice that out in the grass fields the chicken and the cattle roam together freely over the pasture. They’re not kept imprisoned in cages and sheds as on so many of today’s factory farms. But as a growing number of farmers are now discovering, when you keep grazing animals and poultry out on pasture where they belong, you quickly make the land more productive. It’s one of the techniques now being called regenerative agriculture. It’s a system with the power to transform the planet.
In his best-selling book George said the land on their small Cotswold farm was so poor, they needed to stock it with large numbers of cattle, sheep and poultry to build the fertility to grow the bumper wheat crops the war-torn nation needed. Together grazing animals, poultry and pasture plants are nature’s method of re-cycling carbon – taking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the soil. Then through the ceaseless actions of unimaginable numbers of soil microbes it’s turned into compounds plants can use to grow.
In the words of US pasture farmer Joel Salatin, it’s the closest thing in nature to a free lunch. The more you graze the land – in a carefully managed way, that is – the more food it will produce. George Henderson reckoned that if all of Britain were farmed in the way he and his brother did it, the nation could easily feed a population of 100 million. Tragically in the modern world we’ve forgotten how bountiful nature can be if her basic laws are respected. Across Britain chickens are trapped in cages and cows shut in sheds. In crop growing chemicals have replaced fertility-building grassland. The results - ruined soils, polluted streams, contaminated food and lost wildlife. There’s only one answer – we need to put grassland and grazing back into farm rotations. It’ll bring a whole new life to our countryside.
Roberta Bellekom meets the real Elizabeth Henderson who sadly died in 2019
Actor Roberta Bellekom who originally played Elizabeth Henderson
Seems like, back in World War Two, Farmer George had it about right. No Finer Life tells his story - and the story of his small Cotswold farm – through the eyes of Elizabeth, the Land Girl who grew to love him. It’s a heart-warming story of love, hope and belief in the land. More than one thousand people saw and enjoyed the show on its first tour. We hope to tour it again in 2020.
So if you’d like it to come to your village hall or an arts centre near please get in touch with us at
0772 0882 530