Helen is a force of nature. Not only is she Chief Executive of the Soil Association (the UK’s leading organic certification body); she has also served on the government’s ‘Curry Commission’ on the future of farming and food, chaired the Food Ethics Council, chaired the Animal Health & Welfare Implementation Group… We could go on! In 1998 Helen was awarded an OBE for her services to the organic movement.
But first and foremost, Helen is a farmer, mud firmly on boots. “When I’m outside; when I’m walking the farm – that’s when I feel most like myself,” she says. Her two farms are both traditional mixed systems, producing beef, dairy, cereals and pulses, eggs, orchard crops and berries, as well as the top-welfare organic pork that we enjoy at Riverford.
The Brownings have farmed at Eastbrook since 1950 as tenants of the Church of England. Young Helen grew up watching her father Bob adopting the latest farming methods: pulling out hedges to give large fields, upgrading to bigger tractors, and using ever-more powerful artificial pesticides.
“Yields increased,” Helen says, “but wildlife started to vanish.”
At university studying Agricultural Technology, Helen’s misgivings about conventional farming deepened. Promising to show them the hyper-efficient future of pig-keeping, lecturer ‘Piggy’ Sadler took his students to an intensive farm. Helen was shocked by the brutality of the system.
“Seeing it in the flesh, the sow stalls, the farrowing crates and sweat boxes, and to have this presented as ‘the way’ was deeply disturbing,” she says. Helen left Piggy Sadler’s class with a D-minus, and the determination to one day prove him wrong; this couldn’t be the future of farming.
In 1986, Helen took over management of her father’s farm – and soon began experimenting with organic methods. “Alongside the enterprises that were already here, we started to keep both pigs and chickens, to show that it was feasible to give these animals a good life,” she says. “If we want to eat meat, then we should ensure that animals not only avoid suffering, but have some fun too.”
Helen’s organic herd of 200 sows are pure British Saddlebacks - a hardy native breed that thrive outdoors, make great mothers and produce full-flavoured pork. Her boars are Large Whites, a typical UK outdoor-reared cross. They counter the fat levels found in pure breed Saddlebacks, but not enough to change their special flavour.
The pigs live outdoors in family groups, with loads of space and fresh ground to rootle around in. Even in the coldest, wettest weather, the pigs seem happiest outside foraging in the grass, clover and mud looking for roots, bugs and other treasure. They also have dry, warm ‘arc’ houses with plenty of fresh straw when they want to be cosy.
“I see first-hand the difference farming my land organically makes – from more bees and hedgerows, to contented, healthy animals, to lots of people gainfully working here,” says Helen. If you’d like to see for yourself, Eastbrook Farm welcomes visitors for walks and guided tours.