Crumbs Farms With... Helen Browning and Tim Finney

by Crumbs

23 August 2017

"Anyone who thought about organic farming at all considered it a hippy, Good Life sort of thing – or a rich man’s hobby.”

There are few people who know more about organic farming than pioneering farmer and Soil Association CEO Helen Browning , so when she asked if we wanted to have a nosey around the 1,500 acres she calls home, we didn’t take much persuading…

WORDS: Emma Dance

PHOTOGRAPHY: Andrew Callaghan

These days organic food is hardly a novelty. Go into just about any grocery store anywhere in the country and you’ll find shelf upon shelf of the stuff.

Rewind 30 or so years though, back to 1986 when a fresh-from-university Helen Browning took the reins of Eastbrook Farm in Bishopstone – a place that had been tenanted and run by her father since 1950 – and things were rather different. There was barely a whisper of the O-word in supermarkets; you could count on the fingers of one hand the organic farms in the country; and anyone who insisted on eating organic was regarded as, frankly, a bit weird.

Helen’s decision to start converting the family farm to using organic practices was then, by anyone’s standards, a brave one. And it’s not as if she wasn’t already facing challenges as a young, female farmer in a very male-dominated world.

“This place created quite a stir,” she admits, as we drive past fields growing cereals and pulses and grass just waiting to be cut to become the silage and hay that will feed the livestock through the cold, winter months. “Not only was I a young female, at a time when there were not many women farming, but there were not many organic farmers of any type. Anyone who thought about organic farming at all considered it a hippy, Good Life sort of thing – or a rich man’s hobby.”

Helen stops the car at an innocuous looking field, and we get out and hang over the gate, admiring the view.

“This was where it all began,” explains Helen, pointing at the swathe of green in front of us. “We started with a 20 acre test site, and this was it. My great friend from university, Kate, was working here with me, and she was planting the carrots and looking after the chickens and running around trying to sell things – we still refer to this field as ‘Kate’s Folly’.

“We knew from the start that we’d have to create a market for what we produced and we’d have to sell things ourselves, so we had a little stand by the side of the road.

“I was managing about 10 men at the time, and most of them were about twice my age and they were very sceptical about the whole organic farming idea. But having this site gave everyone the chance to have a look at it, and see how it would work. The other day I was with one of those guys, and he said to me, ‘We all said you’d have us bust in a year, but look at us now!’ That was nice to hear.

“It’s funny to think that it was half a lifetime ago, and this is where it all began.”

She looks around and gestures at the surrounding hedgerows, towering above us. “When I came back from college all these hedges were trimmed right back,” says Helen. “They were about only about three feet high, so you could see into the field and over to the next ones too. I’ve left them to grow up, though, because I’m very keen on giving birds somewhere to nest. It feels very different here now.”

There’s no doubt that Helen’s farming practices are rather different from those of her father.

“Farming really changed in the 1960s and ’70s,” she explains. “The bigger machines were coming in, and new chemicals, and it was all transforming farming. Dad was very much at the forefront of the latest technologies.”

Helen’s big decision to go organic, though, really came about during her time studying for her Agricultural Technology degree.

“We were taken around these pig and poultry places, and they were horrific,” she says. “I wanted to show that you could do it differently. When I was at university I was lucky enough to spend some time working on one of the first organic results trials for what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, where I learned a lot – so I did have a bit of an idea what I was doing!”

And there’s no arguing that Helen hasn’t made a success of the venture. As well as the arable crops, there are pigs which are bred for meat, and cattle – mostly dairy, but with a bit of beef and veal produced, too – as an integral part of the operation (they supply meat to the likes of Sainsbury's, Ocado, Riverford and Abel & Cole), as well as a thriving village pub (Helen Browning’s Royal Oak) which actually sits on the farm estate, a Chop House in nearby Swindon, and Helen’s just created a new orchard area where she’s experimenting with agro-forestry. Oh, and not forgetting the small matter that she’s CEO of the Soil Association. Little wonder, then, that in 1998 she was awarded an OBE for services to farming.

“My work with the Soil Association is fairly all-consuming at the moment,” says Helen. “The farming really has to fit into weekends – I scamper around trying to catch up with everything that’s gone on over the week. I’m lucky to have such a good team around the place.”

During the week, then, farm manager Henry is in charge of the farm, while Helen’s long-term partner, Tim Finney, leads the hospitality side of the business.

“My background is very different,” admits Tim. “I’m from very urban Yorkshire. I worked for the BBC on Radio Scotland and Radio 4 for about 10 years, but when I was 35 I met Helen and decided to come here.

“I was reporting on food and the environment, and it seemed at the time as if joining her business would give me the chance to stop just talking to people about it and actually get involved. It was all a bit of a shock, though.”

Tim had done agricultural economics at university, and had been a farming journalist too, so he knew all the jargon. “But I think the realities were quite challenging,” Helen says, with a smile. “He still doesn’t really know anything about farming!”

Over the 20-odd years that Tim’s been part of the team, though, there’s no doubt that he’s helped drive it from strength to strength, developing the Helen Browning Organic brand along the way, including transforming the pub which serves food produced on the farm.

“The pub came about in 2006,” says Tim, taking up the story, “basically because it was a terrible pub that had been allowed to be ruined, but it was right in the centre of the village. Arkells, who are the landlord, were very happy for us to take it on and have a go at turning it around. It’s a labour of love, but being farming-type people we’re in it for the long haul.

“It’s difficult to run a pub the way we want to do it. We have our own meat supply from the pigs and the cows, which is great, but we don’t kill every day. It means that the kitchen can’t always have fillet steak or pork chops, and the menu has to evolve over the week. It makes the chefs very inventive! Our menu is always full of surprises, and occasional disappointments, because sometimes favourite dishes aren’t on there.

“We make our lives difficult, but that’s because we work in this ethical box. That said, if we weren’t in this box, then we wouldn’t be doing it.”

Despite the challenges, the pub is a roaring success. So much so that it recently expanded, with Tim and Helen, supported by Arkells, taking over another dilapidated pub building and transforming it into 12 cool and quirky bedrooms for overnight guests. It’s a real heart of the community too, something which is important to both Helen and Tim.

“As a business, we employ a lot of people from the village – either on the farm or in the pub,” says Helen. “We’re also planting a wooded area for the village. I’m slightly obsessed with trees, and we’re planning 18 acres. It’s close to the village and it’s deer fenced too, so people can go there with their dogs and let them go. It’s a really special little space.”

For most people, the enormity of the task of running the farm would be more than enough, but not for these guys.

“There’s always something to do and something happening,” says Helen. “We constantly feel like there’s too much to do, but the complexity of the operation also works really well, because we never have all our eggs in one basket.

“And there are still so many opportunities. I could easily invent a dozen further things we could do! Some Italians are using our milk to make Mozzarella on the farm, for instance, which is great fun – and they are actually making a really good product.

“I’m very keen to be doing more stuff with dairy and adding value to milk, so I think we will end up having more cows here in the longer term. The problem is, when I see something that could happen, I just want to help it happen now!”

There is an end in sight, though, as Helen is planning on handing over the running of the farm to her daughter, Sophie, and her partner Dai in a few year’s time, once Sophie has finished her veterinary degree.

“They will take over the management of it all, and I will go and play with my trees,” says Helen. “My dad was very good at letting me get on with things, but I’m not sure how I’ll manage. I still want to live here, though, so I’m going to have to try!”

But that’s in the future. For the time being, at least, this is still very much Helen Browning’s farm.