Daughter of the revolution

She was born into a world of aristocratic Victorian privilege. Her uncle and great uncle were prime ministers, her mother was daughter of a Viceroy of India. The family seat and acres in East Lothian were her childhood home and playground for seven months of the year, supported by an army of maids, footmen and grooms.

For Lady Evelyn Balfour the future was assured: house parties, the London season, marriage to the scion of another aristocratic family and a life of conventional monied ease. Instead she was to become what today we would call an eco-warrior, a hands-on farmer, author of one of the most influential treatises on organic farming and founder of the Soil Association.

Although born in Surrey (her MP father was Secretary for Ireland), seven months of the year were spent at Whittinghame in East Lothian, her father’s home inherited by her bachelor uncle, Prime Minister Arthur (AJ) Balfour.

Life was governed by the conventions of the day. But the attitude to children at Whittinghame was unusual for the time. Children were listened to, provided they had something original to say. And Eve, who inherited a family assertiveness, had much to say.

When, at the age of eight, she evinced horror at the sight of Whittinghame keepers pulling the necks of shot pheasants, her father simply suggested that if she felt that way about killing animals she had better become a vegetarian. And, no doubt tiresomely for the kitchen staff, she did.

Even her announcement, at the age of 12, that she was going to be a farmer, was treated seriously. And at 17 she became one of the first women to take an agricultural diploma at Reading University. Her family, it is true, were troubled not only by her manly appearence but the possible "coarsening" of her character during her year’s "practical" on a farm: 12 hours a day ploughing with horses, mucking out and mixing with the working classes. Eve, typically, saw it as good experience: "It quickens and makes more sensitive my thoughts and feeling."

It also prepared her for running a government-owned farm in Wales during the First World War. But her thoughts were already turning to a farm of her own - a dream she had shared with her older sister Mary since childhood. Mary, born with a cleft palette and prone to disastrous love affairs, was the domesticated and artistic half of this odd couple; Eve the forceful one. Together they bought the 157-acre New Bells farm at Haughley in Suffolk with its primitive, moated Elizabethan farmhouse, for 4,000.

With them they took a friend of Mary’s, Beryl "Beb" Hearnden, and took in a neighbour’s son as agricultural student. To supplement the parlous farm income during the agricultural slump of the 1920s - the farm employed six people - they played a Saturday night jazz spot at an Ipswich hotel. They were joined by Kathleen Carnley, ten years Eve’s senior, but an experienced dairy farmer.

A further attempt to bolster incomes saw Eve and Beb co-writing successful detective novels. An appalled Balfour aunt wrote: "Why anyone should think vulgar slang and dreary pages of talk between ill-educated people worth putting into print I cannot understand."

Ends never quite seemed to meet at New Bells, despite Eve’s hands-on efficiency. But life was still young and fun. They put on plays written by Mary, Eve learned to sail and crewed her brother’s yacht to Scandinavia every year, endless friends came to stay, and she learned to fly.

And then, to the delight of the press which loves nothing so much as a toff manqu, Eve, described by Time magazine as the "horsey" and "pretty" niece of a prime minister, was drawn into the forefront of the Tithe wars (tithes were still being levied by the Church of England on farmers). With her ability to marshal a cogent argument and deliver it in public with the natural authority of her family and upbringing, this Joan of Arc on a hay-wain had found the first of a lifetime’s causes to champion.

Barring the way to bailiffs, she was arrested for riotous assembly - case dismissed. But she was called to give evidence to a Royal Commission. If she had been noticed only for corduroy breeches and horny hands in the past, she was now recognised for her views and intelligence. But she had acquired another best friend, Alice Debenham, a trained doctor and farmer from Dorset, who as good as gave Eve the neighbouring Walnut Farm.

Eve’s family today suggests the lack of visible male lovers can be partly attributed to the shortage of young men, a common enough complaint following the First World War. Feminist author Rose Collis included Eve in her lives of prominent lesbians, Portraits to the Wall, but there is anecdotal evidence of an affair with a married man, possibly American, killed in the war.

It was with Alice during the 1930s, over the kitchen table at New Bells, that they began to discuss the concept that man and his environment were one indivisible unit and subsequently the Haughley Experiment was born - the first farm-sized trial to compare farming methods: organic only, livestock and artificial fertiliser, and arable and artificial fertiliser. Alice and Eve made over their farms to a trust in the interest of science.

Eve’s inquiry was open-minded, however. Although her work at New Bells convinced her that the answer lay in the soil, she was always open to persuasion. Even her own vegetarianism was open to critical evaluation. "Don’t model yourself on me," she once wrote. "I drink gin and tonic and smoke cigarettes. As long as you’re good 75 per cent of the time, the remaining 25 per cent will look after itself."

A booklet on the Haughley Experiment became The Living Soil, an outstanding success which appealed to layman and scientist. It ran to eight editions. Such was the demand for more information that the Soil Association was formed.

By 1947 Eve, with the ever-faithful Kathleen Carnley, was touring agricultural shows with a Soil Association stand packed up in the back of a 1928 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and trailer. Again her sexuality was obliquely open to question. The Star reported, with acidity: "She gets up at five and works in the fields all day in corduroys and shirt. Most of her helpers are women."

In spite of the huge interest, the Soil Association was as a flatulent cow with its rear to the wind of change. Wartime and post-war agricultural policies demanded the high yields which artificial fertilisers could deliver. Eve became, like Rachel Carson in the US - author of the The Silent Spring, an expos of the effects of artificial fertilisers - constantly labelled a crank. If anything, it made her more determined.

It also made the Haughley Experiment all the more important. But Haughley, taken over by the expanding Soil Association, was by the 1960s in financial trouble again. Eve was retired, touring the world, writing and talking harder than ever, when, on the basis of some questionable findings, Haughley was closed while she was abroad.

Eve took the decision with equanimity. She had come to see a wider global picture; was fted wherever she travelled, from the US to Australia. She died in 1990. The organic movement she pioneered is now in the mainstream of ecological thinking. She began her career behind a plough and pair. It ended to the roar of four-wheel-drive tractors dragging ten-blade reversible ploughs across 100-acre fields. Her ashes were buried beside her sister Mary at Whittinghame, the home where they had first dreamed of a life together in farming.

The day she died the government announced funding for organic farming.

Eve Balfour by Michael Brander is published by Gleneil Press, 20