Sunday, April 1, 2007

Talk to the plant: Prince Charles's organic revolution

By Kim Severson
Published: April , 2007

TETBURY, England: When Prince Charles gazes from the upstairs windows at Highgrove, his home near this tiny town in the English countryside, he can see a tree planted by the Dalai Lama. It grows near a field of rare British wildflowers, which fade into a row of box hedges trimmed to frame four small busts of the prince's head. Tigga, his late, beloved Jack Russell terrier, is immortalized in a relief sculpture on a nearby garden wall, behind which a longtime gardener prepares the ground for the prince's favorite vegetables, potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
Prince Charles, whose hobbies have included both polo and the peculiarly English rural craft called hedge laying, cherishes tradition. In his world, it seems, not much good can come of change.

He has waged war against modernity, both in faceless urban architecture and in the erosion of the rural British way of life.
At home, the royal perspective has been criticized as conservative, stodgy and elitist. But to some of the generals of the American food revolution, the prince qualifies as downright progressive.
Alice Waters, who drove the organic movement in the United States, is smitten. "He is, in private, really one of the most forward-thinking, radical humanitarians I have ever talked to," she said.
The left-leaning food elite of the United States has prince fever, and it has nothing to do with an underlying fascination with the monarchy, Diana and Helen Mirren notwithstanding. To Ms. Waters and her troops, no one else of the prince's stature has spoken out on the issues they hold dear: responsible stewardship of the land, preservation of rural life and the need for good food grown without chemicals or worker exploitation.

"Can you think of any American political figure who has spoken eloquently or bravely about these issues?" asked Eric Schlosser, the author of "Fast Food Nation," who has become a friend of the prince.
Ms. Waters agreed. "Al Gore doesn't even talk about food," she said.
(That's not to say Mr. Gore doesn't have prince fever, too. He has visited Highgrove to discuss the environment with the prince, and the two happily trade shout-outs to each other in speeches.)
Eleanor Bertino, Ms. Waters's former college roommate at Berkeley in the 1960s and a food and restaurant publicist, is so impressed that she recently took on the job of promoting Duchy Originals, the prince's line of organic food and beauty products, as it makes a new push this spring into the United States.
Like the prince, Nell Newman, the actor Paul Newman's daughter, runs an organic food company whose profits go to charity. She said she is aching to visit his farm. The prince was even a hit among the farmers in Marin County, the hub of the nation's organic movement, when he visited two years ago.
"The prince was treated like a hero when he showed up in Marin," Mr. Schlosser said. "Think about how unlikely that is."
Prince Charles sets forth a practical example of his agenda in the gardens of Highgrove and the neighboring fields of Duchy Home Farm, about 1,100 acres of farmland in Gloucestershire, about a two-hour drive west of London.
When Prince Charles bought the Highgrove house and farm property in the early 1980s, he wrote, he was appalled by the loss of his country's wildflower meadows, hedgerows and chalk grasslands to "agri-industry." So he began to turn the farm and gardens into organic showplaces that might help inspire others to preserve England's rural landscape.
"I can only say that for some reason I felt in my bones that if you abuse nature unnecessarily and fail to maintain a balance, then she will probably abuse you in return," he wrote in his new book, "The Elements of Organic Gardening," written with Stephanie Donaldson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
The prince watches over every detail in the 15-acre garden at Highgrove. It thrives on compost and natural fertilizers brewed from comfrey or seaweed and uses only rain, natural groundwater or wastewater purified through a system of reed beds.
At the entrance to Home Farm, a short drive from his house, rustic signs proclaim the land free of genetically modified organisms. Rare breeds of British cattle eat red clover. Heirloom ginger Tamworth pigs roll in royal mud. The prince (actually, the prince's people) grow vegetables from heirloom seeds, and raise organic oats that are baked into the thin, crisp crackers that are the flagship of the Duchy Originals line.
"Given another life, I think he'd have been a farmer," said David Wilson, the manager of Home Farm.

When all of this started in the 1980s, the British press ground His Royal Highness down to a nub, branding him the prince who talked to plants. (Granted, he did say things like, "To get the best results, you must talk to your vegetables.")
He's still a little sensitive about it. "One of the great difficulties" of converting to organic farming, he wrote in his book, "turned out to be convincing others that you had not taken complete leave of your senses."
The fact that he rode out that early criticism has made him a visionary to some in the United States. "It took some real courage and backbone to keep championing the organic movement in the face of all that abuse," Mr. Schlosser said.
It was Mr. Schlosser who played matchmaker between the American food elite and the prince. The prince is the royal patron of the Soil Association, the English organic certification and advocacy group that rose up with the advent of the organic movement in the 1940s.
Mr. Schlosser had met Patrick Holden, a carrot farmer who is the director of the group and is considered a good friend of the prince. One thing led to another, and soon Mr. Schlosser was having tea with the prince and acting as Soil Association ambassador in the United States. Ms. Waters, meanwhile, was hearing more and more about the prince's devotion to the issues she holds dear. In 2004, she was casting about for a marquee speaker to address the 5,000 vegetable farmers, cheesemakers and goat ranchers from around the world who would gather that year in Turin for the Slow Food conference called Terra Madre. Naturally, she wanted the prince.
"I just immediately try to figure out what the biggest doors are we can open, and that seemed like a door to me," she said.
The Slow Food rank and file thought she was out of her mind. What would the future king of England have to say to an Ethiopian wheat grower?
Plenty, it turned out. The prince had them from the moment he said: "We no more want to live in anonymous concrete blocks that are just like anywhere else in the world than we want to eat anonymous junk food that can be bought anywhere."
By the end, if the honey gatherers and yak cheese makers had been carrying disposable lighters, they would have been lit and aloft.
A year later came the trip to Marin County, a stop at Ms. Waters's Edible Schoolyard at a middle school in Berkeley to eat goat cheese pizza baked by the students, and a stroll through the Ferry Plaza farmer's market in San Francisco, where he worked the stalls like President Bill Clinton on the stump.
The prince has recently embarked on a project to bring more of his organic products to the United States. His Duchy Originals products, made from classic ingredients like damson plums as well as crops from his own farm to help preserve British ways of farming and eating, first appeared in this country in the early 1990s.
In Britain, some 250 Duchy products are available, including bacon; hand-crimped Yorkshire pies; and humbugs, old-fashioned boiled sugar mint candies made by a family in Yorkshire. The products are almost uniformly delicious, and their prices reflect the quality of their ingredients. Last year, Duchy Originals had almost $80 million in sales; profits, about $2.4 million, went to the prince's charities.
"It's odd that the prince has such a big brand because the royal family historically never muddied themselves with such commercial things," said Simon Darling, a marketing executive in London. "However, it is an act of brilliance because the execution of the proposition has been flawless. Given Prince Charles can be accused of being a privileged rich man, it's surprising that he's managed to produce something so good."
The company is frequently scrutinized by the British press. For example, its Scottish smoked salmon is imported from wild stocks in Alaska, which, aside from annoying Scottish fishermen, leaves the prince open to complaints about the size of his carbon footprint.
Americans who want to sample the products can find a small selection of biscuits, jams, teas, body lotions and Highgrove-brand gardening tools online at or at stores like Zabar's and Whole Foods. The savory oaten biscuit, which in the United States would be called a cracker, is a good place to start. Often, these staples of the British cheese plate can be stale and leaden. The Duchy Originals versions have a light crunch and just a hint of sweetness.

But the prince does not need biscuits and lemon curd to work his way into American hearts. Just being a prince who talks about the value of sustainable farming is enough, as Dan Barber of the Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and Pocantico Hills, N.Y., can tell you.
Mr. Barber was one of five chefs selected to cook for Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, when they came to New York in January to receive the Global Environmental Citizen Award from the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment. Mr. Gore and the actress Meryl Streep were presenters.
Mr. Barber is usually a composed, focused guy. But cooking for the prince made him weak in the knees. He created tiny, perfect vegetarian hamburgers from his best Stone Barns beets and goat cheese, and personally arranged almost every pickled baby turnip that was passed to the crowd at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. When it came his turn to explain his offerings to the prince, Mr. Barber was so nervous he couldn't even get the honorific right.
"Your sirness," he began, before launching into a stammering story about organic food being something like leather to a shoemaker, which he now regrets.
"I honestly don't know what happened," he said.
It was prince fever.

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