Frank Newman Turner (1913 - 1964)

Pioneering organic farmer, writer, publisher, medical herbalist, and naturopath.

Frank Newman Turner

A short biography

Frank Newman Turner (FNT) was a visionary. He founded The Farmer, the first organic quarterly magazine ‘published and edited from the farm’, won the Great Comfrey Race, initiated by Lawrence D. Hills in 1953, was a founder member of the Soil Association, and became the first president of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), now the world’s largest organic horticultural association. He later became a leading medical herbalist and naturopath and published magazines promoting natural health care and organic principles.

FNT was born in September 1913, the eldest son of tenant farmers near Barnsley, Yorkshire. After graduating in agriculture and dairying at Leeds University, he became an inspector with the Potato Marketing Board.

His journalistic skills soon became apparent, and he wrote regular columns for Farmer’s Weekly and The Farmer and Stockbreeder. He met his future wife, Lorna, while on a business trip to Cornwall and they married in 1939.

An independent mind
The dedication in FNT’s first book, Fertility Farming, is ‘To my mother, who taught me to think for myself’. This quality came to the fore as the Second World War approached and he registered as a conscientious objector. He had become a Quaker and attended meetings of the Peace Pledge Union as well as lectures by Dick Sheppard and other prominent pacifists of the time. Humanitarian principles were to guide him for the rest of his life.

Lorna Newman Turner

In 1940, he and Lorna, with their new-born son, Roger, moved to the edge of the Chilton Polden Hills, near Bridgewater in Somerset. Frank was to manage Goosegreen, a mixed farm of about 200 acres for conscientious objectors. Here he was able to put into practice the principles of organic husbandry inspired by the writings and personal encouragement of Sir Albert Howard, one of the early advocates of environmental awareness in agriculture.

When the war ended, FNT bought Goosegreen Farm and continued his experiments in creating ‘health from the soil up’. The plough soon became redundant. FNT believed that fertility lay in the subsoil and was best sustained by minimum disturbance of its structure. Deep rooting herbal lays formed the basis of healthy stock - a herd of prize-winning pedigree Jerseys. Ailments among the cattle and cart horses - and children - were treated by fasting, enemas, and herbal dosing.

The Farmer was launched in 1946. It soon gained a devoted following in many parts of the world. FNT also set up the Institute of Organic Husbandry, which presented a series of weekend courses at Goosegreen Farm. These were attended not only by ecologically-minded farmers and horticulturalists but people from other walks of life who were interested in a more natural way of living.

The Farmer masthead

Also in 1946, with the help of Derek Randall, FNT established the Whole Food Society to put producers in touch with consumers who wanted organic produce. (This was probably the first use of the term ‘wholefood’ to define food which is unrefined and grown without artificial sprays and fertilisers.)

Richard de la Mare, then the chairman of the publishers Faber and Faber, was among the visitors to Goosegreen and he persuaded FNT to write the trilogy of organic farming books published in the early fifties, Fertility Farming, Fertility Pastures, and Herdsmanship.

At about this time, Lawrence D. Hills started writing for The Farmer. His great mission was to establish comfrey as a major contributor to the post-war effort to feed the world. Using the Bocking strain he had developed, he set up the Great Comfrey Race in 1954. Russian Comfrey, introduced to the UK by Henry Doubleday, a Quaker smallholder, in the 1870s, was believed to be a valuable source of protein and animal fodder. A number of farmers and horticulturalists competed for the record yields, and Lawrence D. Hills reported on their progress in The Farmer.

FNT led the field, growing 23 tons of comfrey at Ferne Farm, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, to which the family had moved in 1953. In 1958 Lawrence Hills founded the Henry Doubleday Research Association and invited FNT to become its first president.

Natural health for man and beast
Through writing of his experiences with his own cattle in The Farmer and in his books, many stock-keepers knew of FNT’s considerable expertise with the natural treatment of animals and he often treated their ailing cows successfully when conventional treatment had failed. Cases of such stubborn conditions as John’s Disease, spontaneous abortion, and mastitis were brought to Goosegreen and Ferne and returned to their owners to lead healthy, productive lives. The owners started saying, ‘Can you suggest anything for a problem I have?’ So FNT decided to qualify as a medical herbalist and naturopath and, in the mid-fifties, moved into the field of human natural medicine.

The farming phase of his career came to an end and the familymoved to Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire where he established a practice that is still run by his oldest son, Roger. Letchworth was also handy for London, where FNT was a consultant at the Society of Herbalists, in Bruton Street, and it is the home of St Christopher School, a progressive vegetarian school which his two younger sons attended.

The Farmer eventually closed down after more than ten years but FNT continued to publish its subsection, The Gardener, as a monthly magazine. It was probably the first exclusively organic gardening periodical. He also edited and published Fitness and Health from Herbs, the magazine of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, of which he was made a Fellow.

Although he was a committed pacifist, Frank Newman Turner showed no reticence in communicating his belief that both human and animal health demanded respect for, and co-operation with nature. Such ideals were at loggerheads with the powerful agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries, and FNT was no stranger to controversy. In the early 1950s, at the height of the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic, he challenged the Ministry of Agriculture to allow him to take infected animals into his herd to prove the immunity of naturally reared stock. They refused, of course, preferring to pursue the expensive slaughter policy which is echoed in the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises of recent years.

His innate pugnacity, the stresses inherent in his various enterprises, not least the problems of publishing on a shoestring, and what turned out to be a genetic predisposition to heart disease, proved a lethal combination. In June 1964, while visiting herbal medicine suppliers in Germany, FNT died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis. He was 50.

Frank Newman Turner was one of a small band of visionaries who were not afraid to challenge the prevailing dogmas and laid the foundations for the modern environmental revolution. He always maintained that health began in the soil and this message continues to be carried most effectively from the grassroots. The enormous following of the HDRA, the Soil Association, and other environmental lobbying groups illustrates this and would have delighted him. But, with greed, violence, and the destruction of our natural resources probably greater now than it was fifty years ago, he would probably have continued to be a vociferous campaigner for sanity.

© R. Newman Turner
January 2005