Ben Raskin is the Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry at the Soil Association. He has been working in the industry for more than 25 years and co-chairs the Defra Edibles Horticulture Roundtable, sits on the boards of the Organic Growers Alliance and Community Supported Agriculture Network UK, and on the committee of the Farm Woodland Forum. He has also run a walled garden in Sussex supplying a Michelin starred restaurant and is an author of gardening books for children and grownups.
He has contributed to many issues of the Soil Association’s publication Organic Farming, the UK’s leading magazine on organic farming and growing. Each issue keeps readers up-to-date with the latest news, policy issues and market information. There are technical features and reports on the latest field labs and research, covering all aspects of organic farming and growing.
1. How first drew you to horticulture as a career?
A childhood spent helping my dad in the garden set the scene but it was working on an organic vineyard in northern Italy that inspired me to take it up professionally. I discovered I liked hard physical work and the open air. Having vowed never to work in an office I found a way to keep that promise.
2. You have had such varied experience in your career, from running a walled garden in Sussex that supplied a Michelin starred restaurant to running the horticultural production at Daylesford Organic Farm. Is there a particular one of these roles that has been your favourite?
My time at Gravetye Manor was pivotal. It a stunning place to work, steeped in horticultural history as the home and creation of William Robinson, but it was my first proper gardening job. I learnt a huge amount, made lots of mistakes, and gained the confidence and clarity that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
3. What do you find to be the most challenging part of your role as Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry at the Soil Association?
I have been with the Soil Association for 16 years now and when I started the most frustrating thing was feeling that the world did not take our ecological crises seriously enough and that the farming world was not making the most of its environmental potential. We now have a much better challenge. Fortunately most people have woken up to climate change and biodiversity catastrophe and are desperate to do something about it.
We have never been busier at the Soil Association and our biggest challenge is keeping up with demand and building a growing team to meet it. Despite the urgency of what needs to be done, I have never been more optimistic about the desire in the farming world to both continue to feed people and try to safeguard our soils and nature.
4. When you’re not at work, what do you like to do in your free time?
I am a musician with a short attention span, so I play quite a few instruments not very well and over lockdown started taking banjo lessons online. I try to keep active, particularly walking (I did 50 miles in one day for my 50th birthday) and table tennis. In quieter moments, which are few and far between, I like to knit. With two boys I also spend a fair amount of time as entertainer and taxi service too.
5. Do you have a particular favourite issue of Organic Farming?
My favourite was probably Issue 124 from the Spring of 2017. It was the first agroforestry focussed issue we did and heralded our intention as an organisation to champion agroforestry as one of the key climate solutions in farming and land use.
6. Is there anything coming up soon that Organic Farming readers would like to know about?
The next issue 140 is interesting as we try to tackle some of the challenges of growing and providing organic food in a cost of living crisis. The Soil Association has long championed local and alternative supply chains and these are needed more than ever now. For instance small abattoirs continue to go out of businesses reducing the options for smaller farmers to kill their stock locally, and yet there is a groundswell of people from a range of diverse backgrounds keen to enter farming and growing, and we have a great article with Rickey who is the new grower at Woodoaks, our Land Trust Farm near Maple Cross.
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Thank you Ben for that fascinating insight into the world of horticulture — we are very impressed by your 50 miles in a day, too!