One to watch: Helen Browning

The pigs enjoy a great view and a la carte food, as befits a company owned by an organic evangelist.

It is the kind of heavy November day that fog lights were made for. In the village of Bishopstone, deep in the Wiltshire countryside, the lanes are eerily quiet. Anyone with any sense is huddled inside a cosy pub or in front of their cottage fireplace.

Eastbrook Farm's herd of 200 sows and their piglets are tucked up too.

They need to be coaxed out of their 'arks', where they live in family groups, for a photograph with the farm's owner, and founder of the eponymous organic meat brand, Helen Browning.

Browning is a true evangelist for organic farming and received an OBE for her efforts in 1998. She is food and farming director at the Soil Association, the organic movement's governing body, and sits on the Food Ethics Council.

Fellow organic disciple Prince Charles has visited Eastbrook. Browning's brand competes with his Duchy Originals line, although Browning says competition is a different force in the organic farming world. 'We're all just trying to expand the market.'

This is the prime motivation behind the evolution of the Helen Browning brand. If more consumers can be persuaded to go organic, more farmers will get involved with organic farming and more animals will benefit from better treatment. As Browning sees it, creating a strong brand that consumers are attracted to is the best way of making organic goods commercially feasible for the farming community.

She put her dream into action shortly after taking over Eastbrook from her father in 1986. Pigs are the easiest species to add value to, so she bought two to start with. Walking through her fields one evening, she spotted a sow with piglets following behind her. 'It struck me that this is what it's all about - allowing the animals the freedom and space to live autonomous lives.'

The image stuck in her mind and 14 years later was her inspiration for the brand identity - a fat pig, drawn in the style of a children's book illustration, set against the night sky. This jolly tone extends to the copy on the packaging and is designed to counter the slightly self-righteous associations of organic food.

A list of the luxuries that the Eastbrook Farm pigs can enjoy includes 'great, changing views, an a la carte menu and a nice vet who calls in once a quarter to check on happiness levels'. Another list reveals that they don't have steaming hot showers, shagpile carpets or mini bars.

Browning took the decision to make the brand personal in 2000. Making her own name central to the brand identity worked on several levels. 'Women do most food shopping and I could see that they would respond well to the idea of a female farmer. It also made it much easier to detail on packs my attitudes toward farming, as this is so important in the story of the brand.'

The brand has also spawned various extensions. A home-delivery service, just about to embark on its busiest period of the year, sends organic meat products across the country. This year two 'flying pig' vans have started plying their pork trade at sports arenas including Twickenham, Lord's and Goodwood.

Turnover from these events is minimal, but the benefit comes from the opportunity to promote the brand.

The brand itself is now the face of a company whose roots extend well beyond Eastbrook Farm, as Browning buys in pork from 15 other Soil Association-accredited farms, and production is outsourced.

Browning would like to sell in international markets and thinks the brand could do particularly well in Japan, but progress is hampered by the difficulty of securing supply - a conundrum that will only be solved once farmers can be convinced that enough shoppers will buy organic meat. In the meantime she is considering diversifying into organic lamb, beef and poultry.

Even within the organic pork industry, the system is not without its commercial hiccups, though - 'we end up with piles of leftover legs,' admits Browning. The most pressing mission, it would seem, is turning consumers on to organic ham.

TIMELINE

Oct 1989: Browning opens farm shop in nearby Shrivenham.

Feb 1991: Introduces box scheme and starts supplying independent retailers. Products cured and made on the farm premises.

Jan 1995: Former farming journalist Tim Finney joins the business and is later made managing director of Eastbrook Farm Organic Meat.

Sep 1996: Takes on marketing manager Barbara Rayner.

Jun 1998: Starts supplying Sainsbury's.

Jan 2000: Business rebranded under Helen Browning's name. The farm's manufacturing unit is closed, and production is outsourced. Browning focuses on supplying supermarkets including Co-op.

Jun 2003: Launches 'flying pig' vans, serving organic food at sports and National Trust events.

Oct 2005: Turnover reaches £4m. Starts supplying Fresh & Wild in London and Bristol.

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