LOVE OF THE LAND Helen Browning
The organic pioneer, who has been awarded an OBE for her services to farming, discusses the importance of looking after the land
“My farm is home to 200 Saddleback sows, who all get to enjoy the feel of the sun”
I took over Eastbrook Farm in Bishopstone, Wiltshire, from my father in 1986. I was 24. Most of my employees were men twice my age and wary about my ideas. My dad was sceptical, too, but still supportive, given that organic wouldn’t have been his way. The first thing I did was plant clover. Farmers had forgotten what a wonderful plant it is – providing free forage for our cattle and sheep instead of artificial mulch. We quickly noticed bees and insects enjoying it as well. Towards the end of his life, my father said he’d never seen the farm looking so well. That was the ultimate accolade to me.
Organic farming seemed like an elegant solution to a lot of the challenges I witnessed growing up on the farm. I saw wildlife disappearing as we ripped out the hedges to make way for big tractors and sprayed things more and more. Then, when I was studying agriculture, I was taken to state-of-the-art pig and poultry factories – this was what we were all supposed to be aspiring to – and I was shocked by what was going on. So, for me, it started off with being concerned about the way we were squeezing out nature and giving our farm animals a pretty hard time.
During my agricultural degree, I was given a project to create a pig unit. I made mine outdoors to improve animal health and wellbeing, and was given a D. My lecturer told me pigs couldn’t live outside and to go away and do my homework. That was just the stimulus I needed to spend the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong. Today, Eastbrook is home to 200 Saddleback sows, who all get to enjoy the feel of the sun on their backs.
I want great organic food to be accessible to everyone. That’s why I’m proud to have been the CEO of the Soil Association since 2011. The charity has been campaigning for better food and farming since the 1940s. It’s also why I’ve launched my own range of meat, and it was a factor in opening my own Chop House in Swindon and in taking over our local pub, The Royal Oak. We have a lot of fun with events, from the village play to pig racing.
My daughter is finishing her veterinary degree this spring and will come back to Eastbrook after that. She’s already involved with the management and we’re setting up a family partnership, so she and her husband will eventually take over. I will have to do as my dad did and bite my tongue when they do things I wouldn’t do – but we’re very much planning for the next 40 years, with her at the helm instead of me.
Pig: Tales From an Organic Farm by Helen Browning with Tim Finney (Headline, £18.99).