ROMY FRASER - FOUNDER OF NEAL'S YARD REMEDIES AND TRILL FARM
“I felt passionately that there were an awful lot of people that could easily take more interest in looking after their own health using natural products rather than just depending on the NHS.”
In 1981 Romy Fraser left her job as a teacher to found a small, organic natural health care shop in Neal’s Yard, at the time a neglected corner of Covent Garden. Romy hoped her shop would encourage and help people to take more interest in looking after their own health using natural products rather than always relying on the NHS. So she filled it with homeopathic medicines and called it Neal’s Yard Remedies. From a young age Romy had set her heart on becoming a teacher and always dreamed of one day opening her own school. When she founded Neal’s Yard Remedies, it was always the intention to eventually sell it and use the proceeds to fund an educational project. That time came in 2005; with the business boasting a turnover of £12 million and a 250 strong workforce, Romy sold it. She used some of the proceeds of the sale to buy Trill Farm, a 300 acre mixed organic farm set in the rolling hills and woodlands of east Devon. Since 2008 Romy has worked tirelessly to build an education centre, which aims to inspire healthy and sustainable living, and a home for a community of small businesses that work together to use the land’s resources and produce organic products. I speak to Romy about where her interest in organic natural health stems from, her passion for teaching, the story behind Neal’s Yard Remedies and her current work at Trill Farm.
Where does your interest in organic natural health stem from?
I have always been interested in the outdoors and nature. I was brought up in the country and spent a lot of time playing in the fields or exploring with my horse.
I was inspired to start studying homeopathy while living a very basic lifestyle in Scotland. I discovered how powerful herbs are and how they can be used to deal with other people’s problems. I thought homeopathy was fascinating because it treats people as unique individuals with a unique set of remedies that will work for them. That really appealed to me.
I profoundly believe in the subtle approach to change and to health. There is so much we don’t understand about how the body and brain work and how they work together. There is also even more to know about how humans work with the environment and how our environment is impacting our universe. What is extraordinary actually is that humans for so long have not thought that way, we have always thought that we are the most intelligent and have the most right to use the world the way we want. We need to re-learn that. I started thinking like this throughout the 70s and 80s.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I had an amazing primary school teacher who I was really impressed with. By the age of 13 I had pretty much decided that teaching was the way to go. I thought it was the real way of change and bringing about greater equality in the world. I grew up in the 60s and realised, like so many other people, that the way society had been set up was not ideal.
After I had my first daughter I got a job in a democratic school in South London, where I worked for six years. It was a small school that encouraged kids to learn from their own experiences and follow their own interests. In some ways it was like A.S. Neil’s Summerhill, the only difference being that it was a day school.
I thought it was a really interesting model for a school. The kids developed motivation, self-control, self-responsibility, all important parts of growing up. They also developed the ability to express themselves and develop their own ability to articulate how they felt. They would help cook and we would go camping every holidays. To me it felt like a very grounded education that was practical, physical, emotional and mental.
I was very inspired by the founders of the school who had set it up for like minded parents and the kids were great, however, we were always very short of money and I think that put a strain on the teachers that was not really viable. So I decided to try and set up a similar type of school or another educational model but get it well funded.
What is the story behind Neal’s Yard Remedies?
My friend Nick Saunders had started creating wholefoods businesses in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden. He asked me if I would like to rent one of his spaces because he knew that I had been studying homeopathy alongside my teaching and was interested in doing things differently. My plan was to set up a business with the aim of selling it and using the proceeds to set up a school.
What was the original Neal’s Yard Remedies philosophy?
I felt passionately that there were an awful lot of people that could easily take more interest in looking after their own health using natural products rather than just depending on the NHS, that was really what was behind Neal’s Yard.
I was very careful to emphasise to customers that I was not a practitioner; I was giving them some options, encouraging them to read and think about them and then give the remedies a go. We had loads of people coming back and saying I have not slept for goodness knows how long but I took your remedy and it has really worked. By word of mouth we became very busy. The natural medicines drove the business but it was the toiletries that provided the profit.
Did you achieve success straight away or did it take time?
I started the business in December 1981 and by February 1984 had made enough of a profit for us to go on a staff trip to Morocco. Later on in 1984 the bank asked me if I wanted to borrow money and set up another shop. I think I had paid back some money that I had borrowed from them so they saw me as a good bet.
Then I was approached by an environmentalist to set up in California. That was really exciting for me but of course it presented a load of new challenges like how to manage things better and how to get better ingredients. But when you are constantly learning it keeps you motivated. You don’t hang around thinking what do I do next, it was full on the whole time.
Have you noticed a shift in attitudes to environmental sustainability?
Yes, I have seen people’s attitudes shift over the years; there is much greater awareness now which is fantastic but at the same time change is so slow. I am beginning to be less of an optimist. We knew how urgent action was and yet the political will behind doing anything right for the planet and something bigger than their own policy just hasn’t been there. Why has it got to be such a dismal forecast for our grandchildren’s future?
What is the story behind Trill Farm?
I bought Trill Farm as a setting to run an educational project which aims to inspire healthy and sustainable living. Right now I am focusing more on supporting the businesses that are based here, helping them work together and to use the farm responsibly. All the businesses are profitable but they also respect each other, the people they employ and the environment. They are also very good at teaching, that is part of the criteria for them being here. We run loads of classes all aimed at inspiring healthy and responsible living; carpentry, bread making, bee keeping and so on. A big part of my aims for Trill Farm is reconnecting people with nature and the environment.
It seems like there is a strong sense of community at Trill Farm…
Yesterday we had a barbecue on the beach and it was just brilliant. There were 23 of us, people that either work here or run businesses here, and we went swimming, the whitebait coming in, the mackerel leaping out of the sea and the moon coming up. We were eating amazing food that had been produced and grown on the farm and drinking some organic wine. I thought how amazing it was really, those sort of moments keep you going.
Have you always been interested in organic food?
Yes I have always been interested in organic food, although I do recognise that not everybody eats organic. I think we should do more to support organic agriculture and production because it currently costs quite a bit to get accredited for organic status. Unfortunately, there has to be accreditation otherwise people make claims that are untrue; people who are passionate about organic and go to the bother of complying and spending money should be supported. I do think organic food should be the norm not the exception. Ashley Wheeler and Kate Norman run the vegetable garden at Trill Farm, growing over 100 varieties of different organic vegetables.
Has it been hard transitioning to life in the country?
While I always meant to live in the country, I am very fond of London; it is an amazing city, I love the energy, diversity and youth of the place. There is endless possibility and that is what I miss. But the skies at night here make up for it.
Is enough being done in schools to educate children about environmental issues?
I am impressed with what is going on in education. There is far more environmental awareness and it is not just to do with whales and dolphins. So many people with children also really value and prioritise time spent connecting with nature.
Do you ever miss Neal’s Yard Remedies?
I don’t miss that corporate stuff, I don’t miss sales driven targets, I don’t miss tight situations, in fact I don’t miss a lot of it. But I do miss some of the people I used to work with and making some great products.
Do you think it would be possible to set up Neal’s Yard today?
I think it would be difficult in today’s world; it would cost a lot of money and if you have a lot of money you probably wouldn’t set up Neal’s Yard in the way it was set up. It was very much an idealistic, grass roots project and because the products had such strong ethics and because the spirit of the company was so strong it has been able to continue presenting that image. It is very difficult to set up something up that is destined to be bigger without money. On the other hand, there are some really great small, ethical businesses being set up, run by great people with some great ideas.
How do you spend your time on the farm?
Generally I am doing less, but I am still out on the farm quite a lot.
I love being out in nature, camping, cooking or swimming. The project we are focusing on at the moment is clearing the weed out of the end pond. The pond could be great for swimming but there is a load of weed in there at the moment. I have planted a big pear orchard so all the weed is going to mulch the new pear trees. The pear trees are all individually fenced as that way I can put my sheep in there for grazing. Unfortunately I am going to sell most of them, being from Gotland where it is quite stony it has been pretty difficult for them to prosper on our lush wet soil. It’s been a good lesson, to restrict what you grow or rear to a habitat conducive for something to thrive ( however much you like the look of them!).”
I have now been here for nine years and I only thought I would be here for five. I am planning to start focusing on pottery. I love using the wheel and developing my skills. I would like to give myself the opportunity to explore a more personal and reflective yet practical side of myself.