How Prince Charles's 'private passion' for organic farming paid off

For decades, the Prince was mocked for advocating organic techniques. Now, as he enters a new phase, Harry Mount salutes a royal pioneer

Prince Charles at The Meadow in Wiltshire
Prince Charles is leaving Home Farm to move to Sandringham after 40 years Credit: Tim Graham

Forty years ago, Prince Charles embarked on a passionate love affair that has consumed him ever since.

In August 1980, he bought Highgrove House in Gloucestershire from Maurice Macmillan, son of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. At Highgrove, more than anywhere else on the vast royal landholdings, he has experimented with the organic farming dream. He started living at Highgrove 40 years ago and, 35 years ago, he started organic-farming there. He will continue to live at Highgrove (together with its beloved garden) even when his farm lease comes to an end there next spring.

But now, his love affair with farming at Highgrove is coming to an end: at 71, he is beginning to move into position as the next monarch. That means saying goodbye to Highgrove’s 900-acre Home Farm, whose lease runs out in April. And it means taking over those royal landholdings that have been in his family for centuries.

Last year, he took over the 2,000-acre estate at Sandringham in Norfolk from his father Prince Phillip, 99. Immediately, Charles set about making Sandringham organic. In May this year, he had a planning dispute with locals over applying for permission for a big shed for his 500-strong organic cattle herd.

The royal planning application carried all the hallmarks of Prince Charles’s organic passions. It said, “The production of organically grass-fed, high-quality beef from local heritage breeds represents an enhancement of the heritage, cultural and environmental assets of West Norfolk. With the estate going into full organic production across all its enterprises, the need for a good source of farmyard manure to maintain soil fertility means that the estate is farming more sustainably and further enhances the environmental assets of the borough.”

At lightning-quick speed, Prince Charles has pulled off his dream at Sandringham already. He achieved official organic status there this summer and Sandringham is all set to turn into the biggest organic sheep farm in the UK.

Prince Charles has riled locals by applying for planning permission for a 500-cattle barn at Sandringham Credit: AP

Organic farming is now completely standard across Britain and the world. So it’s easy to forget that, when Prince Charles introduced the practice at Highgrove in 1985 (with the estate fully organic by 1994), he was considered a crank, much mocked for his pleasure in talking to his plants. He was mocked too for his opinions on modern architecture, not least at the National Gallery extension, the Sainsbury Wing, in 1984, when he described the proposal as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend”.

He turned out to be right about the National Gallery, which instead plumped for a handsome, neoclassical extension. And he’s turned out to be right about organic farming, too. Yes, he has the massive resources that come from his Duchy of Cornwall income. He can afford a level of manpower that would bankrupt small farmers. He can indulge such practices as planting seeds in line with the lunar cycle and having those seeds sensitively planted by hand.

Still, the income from his Duchy Originals food selection, which began in 1992, shows how popular organic foods now are with the British public. More than 300 sustainably produced Duchy Original products have made millions in profit, which are in turn handed over to the Prince’s charities. It’s now one of the oldest organic brands on the market, working from 2009 in association with Waitrose. Starting from a single product – the oaten biscuit, launched in 1992 – its range now covers chicken, chipolatas, maple syrup, mineral water, strawberries and salmon, in association with dozens of farmers and manufacturers.

Where, like his son Prince Harry, Charles can be accused of hypocrisy about preaching on global warming while settling into yet another private jet, when it comes to organic farming, he practises as he preaches.

And it is at Highgrove that he has really practised his farming principles. At Highgrove Home Farm, he has said, he carried out his great agricultural aim: ‘In farming, as in gardening, I happen to believe that if you treat the land with love and respect, then it will repay you in kind.”

When the Duchy of Cornwall bought the nine-bedroom 1798 house and its 347-acre estate for £865,000 in 1980, there was only a kitchen garden, an overgrown copse, some pasture and a few hollow oaks. Prince Charles later bought Broadfield Farm, a 420-acre farm, taking the Highgrove estate to over 1,000 acres by 1993.

Prince Charles practices what he preaches when it comes to organic farming Credit: Tim Graham

Since then, as patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, he has used the farm to help preserve the gene pool of British pigs, sheep and cattle. Among his flocks and herds, he has had Tamworth pigs, Irish Moiled pigs, Gloucester, Shetland and British White cattle, and Hebridean and Shropshire sheep. His beef herd currently includes pedigree Aberdeen Angus females and yearlings, Angus bulls and Angus cross Friesian cows. He also has a flock of Masham and Mule sheep. In 2004, he founded the Mutton Renaissance Campaign to support British sheep farmers and make mutton more palatable to British consumers.

In many ways, Prince Charles is a frustrated intellectual. He was not academic at Gordonstoun or Cambridge. But he has a burning curiosity for art, architecture, gardening and farming.

In all these areas, he has experts he defers to. In his gardens at Highgrove, he took advice from the great gardeners, Rosemary Verey, Miriam Rothschild and Molly, Marchioness of Salisbury. With rural Norfolk churches, he turned to the late Billa Harrod, an architecture expert. At the Home Farm, he has been advised by Charles Clover, former environment editor of the Daily Telegraph, with whom he wrote Highgrove: An Experiment in Organic Gardening and Farming (1993).

In the book, the Prince describes his work at Highgrove as “a purely private passion’’. Even then, 27 years ago, he was determined to avoid chemicals and was experimenting with an alternative, natural sewage treatment system. He sought organic controls in farming, practised crop rotation and was trying out new and rare varieties of fruit and vegetables. All these practices are now mainstream - they weren’t then.

Charles Clover now says, “Prince Charles has successfully made multiple points about organic farming and created a lasting brand at Home Farm - Duchy Originals - in the face of considerable scepticism at the beginning. I doubt he has anything left to prove at Home Farm now; so it makes sense to move on and apply similar techniques at Sandringham.”

As always, the Prince is hypersensitive to criticism about his progressive views. He has said, “Some may not like it; others may scoff that it is not in the ‘real world’ or it is merely an expensive indulgence. Whatever the case, my enduring hope is that those who visit the garden may find something to inspire, excite, fascinate or soothe them.”

As a result, Highgrove has been transformed over the last four decades. Thousands of trees have been planted on the estate, including what is now the national beech collection. New gardens at Highgrove include a Carpet Garden, Southern Hemisphere Garden, Walled Garden, the Autumn Walk, Sundial Garden, and a Woodland Garden. The prince has also built two classical temples made out of green oak and a stumpery of dead trees, a haven for insects.

The gardens and the farm work hand in hand with specially designed beehive pavilions, whose bees pollinate both the farm crops and the Prince’s beloved wildflowers. His love for traditional architecture also bleeds into the Home Farm, where his beef yard, designed by Willie Bertram, is constructed out of local Cotswold stone. The farm buildings are a mixture of the traditional and the cutting edge: they are powered by solar panels. His environmental views move into the house, too, which is heated by a woodchip boiler, and has its sewage filtered through a natural sewage system.

In 1993, he wrote, “I have put my heart and soul into Highgrove - and I will continue to do so while I can. I have also put my back into Highgrove and, as a result, have probably rendered myself prematurely decrepit.”

There is in fact still plenty of farming life in the prince’s bones. 35 years after sparking his farming revolution, it is time to move on to bigger pastures at Sandringham. He has already started transforming them but he will be hoping to make them even better - as king.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)