Food Heroes – Eliza Pearson

As the eldest daughter of Viscount Cowdray, and a member of one of the oldest landowning families in the UK, Eliza Pearson could have simply enjoyed an easy life of parties and polo matches at her family’s Sussex estate, Cowdray Park. Instead, the thoughtful twenty-five year old has worked her way around the world, living with cotton farmers in India, picking coffee on Tanzanian plantations, and making compost tea and bio-fertilisers on Australian cattle ranches.

IMG_0022Her experience working the land was part of a degree course that aimed to show students the effects of globalisation. “What we learnt,” says Eliza, “is how everything affects everything else. I lived in Nagpur, which has the highest suicide rate in India, partly because of the money farmers owe to biotech companies for GM seed. It was living with these families that really brought home to me how every single choice we make, every day, has far reaching consequences.”

Shocked by the injustice of her hosts’ lives, Eliza came home to the UK inspired and passionate about making a difference in the food system.  Viscount Cowdray, her progressively minded Dad, steered her towards permaculture and she joined a course run by Aranya Gardens in Petersfield. “It was the first time in my life that I didn’t want to miss a minute of what I was learning,” she says.

Eliza was keen to implement her new ideas at Cowdray – which farms 4,000 of its 16, 500 acres – but she knew she needed more hands-on experience. So, she took the advice of a friend – actress, environmental campaigner and fellow permaculture enthusiast, Daryl Hannah – and headed to Bendigo in Australia where permaculture was creating a global buzz thanks to the inspirational tutor, Darren Doherty.

Mob grazingDoherty is a sixth generation farmer who coined the phrase “regrarian” to describe a system of agriculture that regenerates the soil, rather than degenerates it. Like his American counterpart, Joel Salatin, Doherty advocates agricultural practices like mob grazing and pasture cropping which are designed to build topsoil and lock in carbon. Alongside Hannah, Eliza completed the course and went to try out her new skills on a couple of Australian cattle ranches nearby that practiced regenerative agriculture.  “One of the farms we were on uses mob grazing, so we had to move the cattle around every couple of hours. I loved it,” says Eliza.

Back in the UK, Eliza has finally been able to put her new ideas into practice at Cowdray Park. A small herd of beef cattle have been trialling mob grazing with good results and a test site for pasture cropping has been established. If all goes well, Cowdray will be looking to roll out these ideas across the estate which as well as selling potatoes and wheat to major food manufacturers, produces five million litres of milk a year.

It’s a big transition for an estate that has been farmed in a traditional way for generations, but Eliza is confident that a regenerative system of agriculture will not only have positive results, but will help bond all those who work at Cowdray. She explains “If your farming practices stem from your values and ethics and you share those ethics with the people that you are working with it brings us together and the way we interact and communicate with each other is very different. On an Estate level it helps to unify all the departments that need to liase and work together.”

CottonFor Eliza, her work at Cowdray is a natural extension of her passion for the natural world. “Growing up at Cowdray, I feel very blessed to have been surrounded by such extraordinary natural beauty and large areas of forest. As kids we were always playing outside and making camps. I grew up with a deep and profound connection to nature.”

Now pregnant with her first child, Eliza is determined to pass this passion on. “I recently visited a permaculture community near Dartmoor (Steward Wood Community Woodland) and was shown around the forest by a seven year old boy who knew which mushrooms in the woods were edible.  I would love my kids to grow up knowing that sort of thing.”

A vegetarian since the age of 11, Eliza is also keen to get Cowdray growing more vegetables. “I’m not against other people eating meat if it’s raised in a sustainable and compassionate way but for me, it’s a spiritual choice.” However, her new plans might have to wait a while. As soon as she’s had the baby, Eliza plans to hit the road again – this time in a van. “I want to go and work in communities and on farms around Europe. I want to learn more practical ways of applying my knowledge and enhance my skills base.”

As Eliza pointed out, the ethical basis of permaculture has a way of bonding people – regardless of their backgrounds. If this new generation are able to hold that vision, we may have a chance of building this new “regrarian” food system that regenerates the world’s resources rather than degenerating them.

Photographs from top: Eliza Pearson in Tanzania, Eliza Pearson, mob grazing in Bendigo, cotton factory in Nagpur

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