A magical account of the lives of pigs from one of the UK’s most influential organic farmers – Helen Browning.
In a frosty field on the longest night of the year, eight piglets snuffle their first breath, and jostle close to their mother to feed…..
The book follows these piglets over six months showing how pigs become mischievous, competitive intelligent and inventive characters that we know them to be. In Chapter 3 Helen explains how she came to be an organic pig farmer…
It began like this
My life with pigs started late. My father did not keep them here; cows, beef, sheep, but no pigs. Like many people, I’d hardly seen one until I started my degree in Agricultural Technology at Harper Adams in Shropshire. We were lectured on them by ‘Piggy Sadler’, who was definitely a man of his time. There was only one way to keep pigs in his eyes, and he proudly took us to the ‘state-of-the-art’ farms nearby. As a naïve farmer’s daughter, coming from a farm which, while cutting edge in many ways (not all of them good), kept animals at pasture during clement months, I was shocked to my core. Yes, I had stumbled across ‘Animal Machines’, Ruth Harrison’s landmark book that exposed the inhumanity we were inflicting on our farm livestock, in my school library many years before. But seeing it in the flesh, the sow stalls, the farrowing crates, the weaner desks and sweat boxes, and to have this presented as ‘the way’ was deeply disturbing……
…Piggy Sadler gave us a project, the theoretical establishment of a 400-sow breeding unit. Starting as I meant to go on, mine was an outdoor system, with sows taking some of their diet from grass and other forage crops. I received D minus, and a public dressing-down: ‘Pigs don’t eat grass’! It was just the challenge I needed to prove him wrong, and to spend a lifetime promoting a better way of keeping pigs to as wide an audience as possible.
My practical life with pigs started soon after taking on the management of the farm in 1986. Concerns about animal welfare were just part of the angst I had developed about farming. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that we were also squeezing out nature. Farming has always done this, of course, but with ever more powerful machinery, sprays and fertilisers, we were, and still are, wreaking intolerable destruction on all other species. I had grown up with the orthodox assumption that being a good farmer (that is, a good person) meant extracting maximum yield, whether from an acre of land or animal. But the cracks were apparent; even at Eastbrook I could see the wildlife was vanishing as hedgerows were pulled out to make way for ever bigger tractors and more chemicals were used year on year. I started to become interested in organic farming as an alternative approach.
As you can imagine , this was another unacceptable subject at Harper Adams in those days. In three years of study, there was only one lecture that mentioned it, and while the physics and chemistry of soil were well taught, its biology barely featured. When an ‘extraordinary opportunity emerged for me to spend my ‘industrial placement’ year as the research assistant on the first Ministry of Agriculture-sponsored project on the comparison between organic and ‘conventional’ farming, the college almost refused to let me take it. I lobbied hard, and in the end, they relented.
That year was the best possible preparation for my future….’
Read more in ‘Pig’ about the pigs that Helen is so passionate about and why it is so crucial that the welfare of our farm animals – and equally the way we manage our countryside – takes centre stage in the contemporary discussions around food, climate change and the loss of wildlife.
Lyrically told and drawing on a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, this is a timely and entrancing exploration of our relationship with farm animals, with nature and life itself.
Read what Monty Don, Jonathan Dimbleby, and other had to say here.
Pig: tales from an organic farm is available online or in Foyles and Waterstones.