Producing the Goods
Helen Browning Organic Meats
Eastbrook Farm covers around 1300 acres, rented from the Church. It is a long thin strip of land about half a mile wide and four miles long to the east of Swindon, stretching from the bleak, windy and chalky top of the westernmost parts of what are rather sweepingly known as the Lambourne Downs, 800 feet up. From there the land, on chalky Icknield soils, swoops down through several more soil types, is cut straight through by the Ridgeway, passes the farm reservoir supplied by a natural spring, into the valley, where there are hedges, pollarded willows and flatter fields and pastures on clay.
Helen Browning grew up on Eastbrook, her father having taken the tenancy for three generations in 1950. The downs had never been ploughed for crops until the war effort, and though her father, and later Helen herself, put much of this land back to pasture, he embraced post-war productionist agriculture and was proud to be the first Wiltshire farmer to introduce herring-bone milking sheds and airtech sprayers. Her own interest in organic farming is grounded in a desire to improve the welfare of the livestock which had become a hostage to intensification, and she has crusaded on that basis ever since. This motivation, along with a desire to work with and enhance the farm environment, as well wanting to demonstrate the notion of a viable livelihood from working in the countryside, led her to organic production as what she considers a neat embracing package. The mixed profile of Eastbrook farm - arable, dairy, beef and sheep - was certainly conducive to conversion. By the 1970s small fields had had hedges ripped out and been amalgamated, leaping from 5 to 30 acres in some cases, which made for efficient arable production but were difficult areas over which to manage livestock, and denuded the field habitats. Helen began the organic conversion of Eastbrook Farm when she took over the farm from her father in 1986. With certification from the Soil Association, the first organic livestock were produced in 1989, starting with two Saddleback pig gilts (sows not yet farrowed).
Helen started in a small way by selling produce from a roadside stall. Later, in 1989, a butcher’s shop was purchased in Shrivenham, close to the farm. With this as a base the business slowly grew until today it supplies organic meat to supermarkets, and via a home delivery service.
Saddlebacks are a rare breed, despite having been popular and common until the 1960s. The British Saddleback - formed when the Essex and Wessex strains were amalgamated in the early 20th century, are productive, good mothers and hardy, so can be housed outside all year round. Rare breeds are often favoured by organic producers as they are more naturally attuned to the extensive methods of organic production. Helen's pigs are kept at the upper levels of the farm, though not quite on the high downs, and are moved around frequently - about every two months. This is partly because they will make a mess of grassland with their grazing and rooting, and partly so that crops can be planted soon after the pigs move to capture the nitrogen within their dung and urine before it dissipates.
Leys of clover are sown and are cut annually for silage over two or three years. Then the pigs arrive, and arable crops (first wheat, then barley or oats) are sown after the pigs have moved. After the last harvest of these crops, cows, or lambs from other farms (Helen keeps just a few Hebridean sheep), may graze the stubble which is then intercropped with clovers again, ready for the following summer. And so the pigs are an integral part of this rotational ritual around the upper levels of the farm.
In addition to pigs, Eastbrook includes a dairy herd of Holstein-Friesians. Dairying and pig production are traditional partners, pigs being great 'recyclers' of dairy by-products such as whey. Helen has gradually diluted the Holstein strain by cross-breeding with New Zealand Friesians, in order to maintain productivity but encourage hardiness. In most dairy herds, even organic ones, male Friesian calves are shot at birth as they rarely make commercial sense for beef. Helen feels this is one area where the organic movement still needs to invest a lot of thinking and commercial flexibility to achieve the 'quantum-leap' needed to improve dairy herd welfare without threatening the business. Her corporate need for productive systems, combined with a deep commitment to animal welfare leads her to keep the male calves and rear them with retiring milkers of 8-10 years of age. At around 6 months the bull calves go for veal, but through the box delivery rather than supermarkets - reflecting another nuance of UK tastes - though a supermarket contract, she feels, could encourage other farmers follow suit.
As the valley descends, the 200-strong Eastbrook dairy herd grazes orchid-rich permanent chalk pastures, which benefit from Countryside Stewardship grants, while on the downs, cows in calf get the pre-natal exercise they need on the steep slopes. Spring and early summer flora includes cowslips, bee orchids and quaking grass. As the pasture is undisturbed, lapwing and skylarks can find nesting spaces among the grass. This area is called The Dry valley and may have been carved in the Ice Age by a river rushing over frozen ground. Today rainwater seeps through the chalk.
There are perhaps four influences on taste of the meat (prior to curing and cooking), Helen feels. Breed is important and Saddlebacks, in common with many native pig breeds, are relatively fat, though modern tastes have tended to favour leaner cuts in recent years. The system of husbandry has an enormous effect on taste, especially how and what the animals are fed, and whether they experience stress. A mixed diet, such as the worms, roots and grasses gathered in the outdoor rearing system, coupled with some processed feed made from wheat (supplied from Eastbrook), is important and a restricted diet will certainly diminish the flavour of the meat. Pigs are sociable and the Eastbrook herd lives in wired-off paddocks (which allow the piglets to dart about freely) in family groups and stay together even at slaughter to minimise stress. This deserves emphasis, not least as it has been a main motivator behind Helen's approach to the business, and because poor husbandry affects the quality of the meat. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall echoes this in The River Cottage Meat Book "With pork, lifestyle is everything. For the pork enthusiast who wants to discover the true taste of the meat, the mission becomes hunt the happy pig…". Finally, a subtle effect on taste will come from the age and the sex of the animal - boars and older animals tend to reflect a more pronounced, even gamey taste.
While Helen rears saddlebacks within the open countryside above Swindon (swine down), Eastbrook Farm Organic Meat is based on marketing a high quality national brand, not a local artesenal product. She sells though a web-based mail order system, and through national supermarkets. This means she is faced with some difficult decisions to keep commercially viable. For example, despite brand retail sales over £5 million, the enterprise is run by seven members of staff - on-farm meat curing and processing would require huge investment. After slaughter, chilled primals (large cuts - perhaps half or quarter carcasses) are sent to specialist bacon curers and sausage makers in other parts of the country. Finding the right combination of scale, commitment to quality and organic registration cuts down on choices of manufacturing firms. In fact, Eastbrook sausages are manufactured in Germany. This seems odd on the face of it but throws up some interesting and positive issues. Sausage fame apart, the Germans mildly pasteurise Eastbrook's meat which lends it a longer shelf-life.
Most UK manufacturers tend not to offer pasteurisation and while government interpretations of EU regulations on abattoir registration may well lead to the closure of many smaller and much needed plants, some German abattoirs actually have restaurants attached to them. Think about it: abattoirs as places meat eaters positively seek out, as real ale fans seek out breweries for that 'straight out of the barrel' feeling. It's a challenge which ought to be considered. Instead of hiding abattoirs away, could it actually help transparency and public confidence in meat after the horrors BSE, foot and mouth and more, if they came to be associated with freshness, craft and trust? A barrel-full of consumer surveys already reflect demand for trust and quality for which shoppers perceive organic and local food as fulfilling.
Sales through supermarkets have undoubtedly increased demand for Eastbrook meat and Helen works with up to 15 other local farmers to meet it. Yet a year ago, when a lot of UK pork was available, some supermarkets did not take it up and continued to import meat. As a result some producers reduced or stopped their pork production. This year has seen the business struggle with a subsequent shortage of bacon cuts. The disconnection between food, land and place which has delivered low prices and wide product ranges to the British consumer since the 1970s has nevertheless ironed out variation (as opposed to 'choice') in some foods. Helen has cross-bred some of her largely black-haired Saddlebacks with the lighter brown Duroc and Large White boars: some abattoirs are anxious about the marketability of occasional black-stubble in the meat and don't necessarily appreciate clearing up those black hairs.
Almost half the productive area of the farm is arable - wheat (which is milled for flour by Shipton Mill in Tetbury or by Dove's Farm in Hungerford, or becomes animal feed returning to Eastbrook), barley, oats and beans are used for fodder. Other arable crops have included borage for pharmaceutical purposes and previous vegetable production was ceased as uncommercial on the less than ideal soils at Eastbrook.
Contact: Helen Browning
Eastbrook Organic Farm, Bishopstone, Wiltshire