Elizabeth Buchanan: 'I learnt a lot from Margaret Thatcher'
- Credit: Jim Holden
Elizabeth Buchanan, the former secretary to both the Iron Lady and heir to the throne, is the new President of the South of England Agricultural Society,. She wants to support farmers because agriculture creates the tapestry of the Sussex landscape
Words: Katy Rice Photos: Jim Holden
Down a winding country lane close to the ancient village of Fletching sits Black Ven Farm, which Elizabeth Buchanan, who has lived there since she was 14, describes as 'heaven on earth'.
'I can barely put into words how much I love it,' she says. 'Nothing gives me more pleasure than walking through the fields, where you can see the sun setting through the trees, and you get a sense of timelessness.'
Indeed, some of the fields on the 200-acre organic beef farm retain the names they had in the 1800s: Home Mead, Sedge, Sandhurst, Fletching Mead and 10 Acre Field - “which is now actually 11 acres after land was added”, laughs Elizabeth, who has worked for Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and was press secretary to Baroness Thatcher, the former prime minister.
'It’s a huge privilege to own land,' she muses. 'We’re here to steward God’s earth.'
It's this boundless enthusiasm and passion for the land that has made Elizabeth the natural choice for the 2022 position of president of the South of England Agricultural Society, a charity that runs and supports agricultural education and countryside learning, and which runs the South of England Showground at Ardingly.
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It’s her second run at the presidency as her first, in 2020, was limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and she follows in the footsteps of past presidents including the Duchess of Cornwall and the politicians Sir Nicholas Soames, the MP for Mid Sussex from 1997 until 2019, and former Environment minister Richard Benyon MP.
The Society holds four major shows annually at the showground, including the South of England Show in June, and this year will see some changes to its calendar. The South of England Horse Trials, one of the biggest on the international stage, will this year be amalgamated with the Autumn Show & Game Fair in September so visitors can experience dressage and cross-country events alongside its regular countryside activities, including gundog displays, clay pigeon shooting, fly casting, archery and axe throwing.
The Society will be running a Lend a Lamb scheme this month, in March, where a lamb and ewe are ‘fostered’ by local schools for a week. The Society will be running a Lend a Lamb scheme this month, in March, where a ewe and a lamb are loaned to local schools for a week in order to promote learning about livestock and farming in a hands-on way. And it will be hosting the Burke Trophy, presented for the best pair of beef cattle, which Elizabeth describes as “a really big moment for the Society”. The trophy, once the pinnacle of the Royal Show, the Royal Agricultural Society of England’s annual show, which closed in 2009, has since been presented at different shows around the country on rotation.
It’s no coincidence that during her year as president, Elizabeth has chosen as the Society’s charity of the year The Prince’s Countryside Fund, which was established in 2010 by her former employer, HRH The Prince of Wales.
'He absolutely understands the importance of farming, particularly smaller farms,' says Elizabeth, who worked for Prince Charles from 1998 until 2008, becoming his private secretary in 2005 until 2008, a position she describes as “the best job in the world”.
'You are working for someone who is motivated by wanting the world to be a better place for other people. He has an enormous capacity to care and he is driven only by goodness,' she says.
'For a long time, he was very frustrated when people couldn’t understand his concern for the environment and his frustration was compounded by the fact that he could not persuade people to understand.
'He said to me, "What do you want me to do? I go all round this country and the world and people show me their problems. It would be criminally negligent of me not to try to help. I will do good with this position I was born into, otherwise what would be the point?"
‘I think many people now recognise just how ahead of his time he has been on climate change, agriculture and many other issues. But that doesn’t give him any pleasure. He just wants to see action so that the world we love, and on which we depend, will be here for our children and grandchildren.
'He is a polymath, a man who is very, very clever and says what needs doing. For him, agriculture is about working in harmony with everything - the environment, health, nature, education. He knows that healthy soil produces healthy food, and by eating better food, people are healthier, and by farming with nature we have a less damaging effect on the environment. They are all connected, and few others can see it but he does.'
Elizabeth is a founding trustee of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, the country’s only charity that empowers family farms and rural communities to ensure their future, providing more than £1million in funding every year and supporting projects such as The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, a business skills training scheme for a number of family farm businesses each year.
This year, it is operating in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which stretches across Sussex, Kent and Surrey. The Society will support the Fund by raising awareness through its members and supporters, and giving it the chance to fundraise at the Society’s events throughout the year.
'The Prince of Wales is passionate about helping farmers, and the charity is very special and remarkable,' says Elizabeth. 'I’m very happy that the generosity of the Society can be of benefit to it.'
She is particularly pleased that as President she can help farmers in Sussex navigate some of the biggest changes agriculture has seen for 70 years.
She cites the Government’s Agricultural Transition Plan 2021-24, which moves away from EU-based rules towards “a system to pay farmers to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbons emissions”.
'For farmers, it’s really hard right now, particularly for small tenant farms and family-run farms,' Elizabeth says. 'There is the push for veganism, which has a role in changing farming, and climate change is happening. Farmers will tell you that they can see differences it is making to their land. Agriculture is such an important part of Sussex - it creates the tapestry of its landscape, and it’s all cared for by farmers, no one else. Yet at the same time, farmers are having to produce food. They are having to plan how to cope with all this change, and this is where the Society is so valuable.
'It runs all sorts of clubs to help farmers embrace changes. And it educates the public about food production, which is incredibly important. It needs to be made easier for people to understand and easier for them to connect to farming.'
There is a risk, she says, that people do not understand farmers, or value them. 'They play such an important role in the ecosystem of a community. When the snow comes, who clears it away? Farmers. When a tree comes down, who removes it? Farmers. If we lose these characters and their wonderful skills, we lose a way of life.
'We want to celebrate the farmers of Sussex.'
In the Blood
Farming has been in Elizabeth’s blood since her parents, Libby and Bill, bought Black Ven Farm in 1976. Libby, who is 98 and still out on the farm every day, was a Land Girl during the Second World War and the first woman to read agriculture at Oxford. Elizabeth’s Canadian father Bill, who died in 2007, was a wheelchair user after suffering an accident on the farm cutting a branch. He successfully campaigned for British Rail to make trains accessible for disabled people, a novel idea, Elizabeth says, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her sister Victoria lives in Hampshire and her brother Jamie lives part-time in a cottage on the farm.
At 59, Elizabeth is unmarried and has no children, which she attributes to 'it never being the right time' during her stellar career. It began in politics, when she worked for the Conservative Research Department, before she became press secretary to the late former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher from 1992 until 1998.
'She was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met,' says Elizabeth. 'She was brave, deeply principled, fair and unbelievably kind. And terrifying. If you got The Thatcherite Stare, you knew you were not on the side of right!’
Elizabeth’s busy life includes a number of other roles, including non-executive director of DEFRA (the government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), an advisor to Waitrose, Saputo Dairy UK (formerly Dairy Crest) and McDonald’s UK & Ireland, and she sits on the BBC Rural Affairs Committee.
'I don’t have any spare time,' she says. 'But that doesn’t matter. Life is for living!'
As president of the Society, she will be working alongside her deputy Tim Waters, the chairman of Mid Sussex Timber, who will both attend the Society’s next event, Spring Live! in April, which showcases the great British outdoors through a series of traditional countryside activities and celebrates the arrival of spring with visitors invited to see farm animals there.
One of the important messages she hopes to get across in her role as President is a greater understanding of where our food comes from. ‘It’s a terrible thing to eat food that has been reared in the wrong way,’ she says. ‘Beef that is reared on beautiful grass is really good for the environment. I applaud schools for bringing the children to shows so they can spend time thinking about food and where it comes from. They will be the ones going into shops and making decisions about food.
‘The younger generation are really inspiring because they mind about this. They are thinking about the climate and the impact it has on the landscape and on the world.'
* Spring Live! takes place on April 23 and 24, the South of England Show from June 10-12, the Autumn Show & Game Fair on September 24 and 25, and the Winter Fair on November 19 and 20. Visit www.seas.org.uk