Home Farm is very definitely where the Prince of Wales’s heart is. The organic Gloucestershire acres that form part of his Highgrove estate are where he likes to walk and ponder. “Walking is a terribly important thing for me. Rather like some people need a cigarette, I need a walk. I find it stimulates the thinking and the reflecting. I spend my life stamping about and I have, you know, things I write down. That’s where the best thoughts come from.”
Prince Charles has been thinking deeply about the countryside for years, which makes him a natural choice to take charge of this Sunday’s 25th anniversary edition of Countryfile.
In that sense he’s in step with the rest of us. Because the rise and rise of Countryfile from Sunday-morning filler to peaktime ratings blockbuster – it’s now attracting eight million viewers a week – shows that while more of us live in towns and cities than ever before, preserving the countryside is widely and deeply felt, particularly by grandfather-to-be Prince Charles.
During filming, the Prince spoke of his excitement at becoming a grandfather – “it’s a lovely thought and I look forward enormously to that relationship” – though he did admit the prospect made him feel old. But he expressed concern about the land his grandchild would inherit.
“We need to think about the future, we need to think what kind of world we’re handing on to our successors. If you think of it in those terms it should make us reflect on the way we do things so we don’t ruin it for them. That’s why it’s so important to work in harmony with nature rather than thinking we can somehow ignore, dominate, separate ourselves from nature, because unless we pay our respect to nature, she’s a great deal more powerful than we are.”
Countryfile presenter Adam Henson, who farms about 30 miles from the Prince’s Tetbury estate, has also encountered the Prince at agricultural events. “I’ve met him three or four times. He walks around the stands meeting farmers and talking to them with ease. He does seem very much in his element.”
Henson applauds Highgrove’s organic approach, but says it won’t work for everyone. “The Prince is very passionate about the environment and about feeding the nation in a responsible way. He has concerns about the amount we rely on pesticides and fertilisers. Personally, I couldn’t manage without artificial fertilisers. I don’t have a dairy unit to provide me with manure and my soil is quite thin so I have never gone down the organic route. You need to weigh up the most profitable way of farming. It’s horses for courses. There’s no right or wrong.”
Home Farm is now an increasingly popular destination for those farmers who believe organic is the right direction to be heading in. Tours of the farm are organised to help spread the message. But is the conflict between idealism and pragmatism irreconcilable?
“What Prince Charles is not striving for is out-and-out production,” says Henson. “He wants his business to be profitable but his underlying ethos is about creating a safe, healthy and vibrant landscape. But he still has to have a business that performs. It’s not about trying to create a chocolate-box image. His farm manager is answerable to account managers and land agents to make sure the figures stack up.
“There may not be a blueprint you can take from Home Farm and drop onto your own and make it succeed, but there will certainly be aspects of it. The modern-day farmer has learnt much more about caring for the environment; even the big-scale eastern counties veg and arable growers are very conscious about the way they produce food. You look at Home Farm and they have been thinking about these things for years.”
Henson says the Prince has played an important role in helping revitalise rural industry – the wool business, for instance, has greatly benefited from his advocacy. “Five or ten years ago farmers were burning wool because it was uneconomic to sell it commercially. But there are now fewer sheep in Australia, New Zealand and Europe and as demand has gone up, so has the price. I told him that wool had become trendy again – that it was being worn on the catwalks and by lads in London. I said, ‘It’s not just you wearing it, sir.’ And he laughed. He liked that.”
Countryfile: a Royal Appointment is on Sunday at 7:00pm on BBC1