The Spark gets muddy on an organic pig farm
As one of the pioneers in organic farming, Helen Browning is best known for her pork products: you may have seen their Speedy Sausages on the shelves in Sainsbury’s and Tesco with their tongue-in-cheek flying pig logo. But Helen Browning’s Organic hasn’t always sold to the supermarket giants – there was a time when they supplied independent retailers. Helen says that sadly it wasn’t very cost-effective, however the Wiltshire farmer, awarded an OBE for her services to organic farming in 1998, wants to bring her business back to it’s local roots, supporting her ideals of working holistically and self-sufficiently.
“I think we have a funny relationship with pigs,” she says as we motor towards the farm near Bishopstone, just outside Salisbury. “It’s that sort of ambivalence. We’re very abusive about them and pigs are generally very clean. They’re only dirty because we keep them in quite dirty conditions.” So contrary to the popular saying, pigs are not happy in shit, its been forced upon them by us through industrialisation. Some people know this to be the case but the majority of society has yet to catch on.
Helen first saw the horrors of intensive pig farming when she was studying a degree in agricultural technology in the early 80s when it was all about mass production of large whites and landrace (another white breed) indoors, without bedding, in crates so they couldn’t turn around. “I was just horrified,” she recalls.
Her class was given an exercise on paper to establish keeping sows and Helen planned her whole system around keeping them outside. “My lecturer gave me a grade F and told me not to be so stupid and pigs couldn’t live outside, they couldn’t eat forage and all this stuff. I just thought right.” So she bought a pair of saddlebacks and built her entire herd from them.
To this day her sows and piglets live outside together in paddocks that are rotated regularly so they always have greenery to root in. But not using farrowing crates was a problem to start with because they do serve a valuable purpose: they stop the sows squashing their newborns. “Over the last 20 or 30 years pigs hadn’t been bred for mothering ability because there’d been no need to. So we had to breed that ability back into them.”
Helen takes me on a tour of the paddocks where there’s loads of space, the sows are foraging and the piglets are running about. They trot over in curious little pink gaggles, stop for a second, then in unison turn tails and rush off. Helen scratches the back of the nearest sow who takes a close interest in her feet. “They love wellington boots! I get through about four pairs a year,” she laughs.
Saddlebacks are a rare breed which Helen chose deliberately as they’re best suited to a free-range environment. “They carry more fat so they can milk and feed piglets well for eight weeks – which is when we wean them – and not lose an undue amount of body condition.” Conventionally piglets are weaned at three weeks to maximise the sow’s production. Research has shown that factors such as choice of breed (whites grow fast and so lend themselves to commercial farming), early weaning and confinement lead to the pigs being more stressed and more prone to health conditions including heart problems.
More humane methods have been introduced into conventional intensive pig farming such as providing more space, bedding and rooting material, but farrowing crates are still popular. A study released by Compassion in World Farming in December 2008 also found that 54 percent of the pig farms they visited in the UK still dock tails (frustrated pigs become aggressive and are known to bite each other’s tails). Around 40% of breeding sows are kept outside now, but this tends to be on the same site for about two years. “They don’t have any grass, it’s bare or they ring their noses so they can’t dig, which I always think is like putting a child into a sweet shop and saying you can’t have any,” says Helen.
Although there are products on the shelves, there is no legal definition for free-range, as opposed to organic, pig farming. “Organics have the highest potential for good welfare because the animal is outside, it’s with the mother for longer,” says Helen. “But you can’t count on good stockmanship. That’s why we’re trying to move within standards to assessing welfare outcomes so checking how happy the pigs are through a lot of different indicators so you can pick up how well the job is being done on the ground.”
You may have guessed that Helen is very active within the industry. She is the Soil Association’s Food and Farming Director and chairs both the Food Ethics Council – a think-tank that challenges government, business and society to make wise choices that lead to better food and farming – and the England Animal Health and Welfare Implementation Group – advisors appointed by the government to drive forward the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for Great Britain. But first and foremost she’s a farmer and that’s what she always comes back to.
Despite having plenty to keep her busy Helen has energy for other projects. In the bid to relocalise, the farm now offers an online local organic meat delivery service selling organic rose veal, chicken, beef, pork and lamb (they work with other organic farms across the country). They also took on the local village pub two years ago, serving delicious, fresh local food and they have a farm shop on site. After a rocky start it now breaks even. “It’s very close to the office and very close to the house and we thought ‘we can do that in our spare time’!” Helen jokes. “We wanted a nice village pub because it was a good showcase for what we’re doing here.”
So if you fancy tasting a fine organic sausage but don’t want to give your money to Tesco you can pop into The Royal Oak in Bishopstone and you might catch sight of a pig farmer with high ideals and holes in her wellies.
Helen Browning’s Organic 01793 790460, www.helenbrowningorganics.co.uk
Compassion in World Farming: 01483 521950, ciwf.org.uk
Support Viva!’s campaign for better welfare for pigs at www.piggles.org.uk
Written by Hannah Latham
First published issue 56 (Spring 2009)
Disclaimer – details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.