7 March 1997

Wiltshire unit aims to be UKs organic butcher

Eastbrook Farm has been setting the pace in organics for many years. Adding value to the livestock enterprise is a more recent initiative. But such has been the success, Eastbrook was a worthy runner-up in the larger business category in the Marks & Spencer/farmers weekly Added Value Awards. Tim Relf reports

THINK mail order and you will probably think of clothes, electrical appliances or childrens toys – not organic meat.

But if you order organic meat from Eastbrook Farm, chances are you will have it the next day.

Mail order is just one initiative undertaken by this Swindon-based firm, and just one of the reasons why it took runners up prize in the larger business category of the Marks and Spencer/farmers weekly Added Value award.

It is actually two businesses, operating from the village of Bishopstone:A 550ha (1350-acre) organic downland farm and a meat processing and retail outfit. Tenant and manager Helen Browning says the farms organic cereals and milk represent added value in its simplest form: "They command a premium, without the need for any further processing."

Cereals harvested in 1996, for example, achieved an average price of £215, milk goes to Bristol-based co-op Organic Milk Suppliers at about 29p/litre.

But it is a different story with livestock. Research in the mid-1980s, when she first became involved in organics, showed there was no premium, or even marketing infrastructure, for such meats.

She soon realised she would have to tackle this end of the food chain, too. And now all 180 cattle, 1700 lambs and 1700 pigs produced are marketed through Eastbrook Farm Organic Meats, the farms "sister" business.

EFOM pays a premium for the livestock over the conventional price, about 10% to 12% for lamb and beef and up to 50% for pigs. "And the processing and marketing undertaken allows further value to be added at this stage."

Among its customers it counts hotels and restaurants, and specialist shops and food halls, such as Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. There is also the business own butcher shop at Shrivenham.

The 120-sow pig herd is the flagship enterprise. Breeding is based on crossing the traditional British Saddleback with a Duroc. Husbandry is in accordance with strict Soil Association principles.

Farrowing is outside. Piglets are not weaned until eight weeks. Stock is slaughtered, at the nearest organically-registered abattoir, between 20 and 24 weeks of age.

"The result of all this is a firm, flavoursome meat, which tastes wonderful," says Ms Browning. Needless to say, there is never a shortage of volunteers for the "blind" tasting sessions in the farmhouse kitchen.

While the farm is "earning its living", EFOM also sources meat from other producers. The problem now is finding sufficient supplies to keep up with demand, especially pig and poultry.

Most pig farmers are so tied into the "rollercoaster" of the price cycle that, in the drive to maximise profits in the buoyant times, they cannot change their production systems, she says. "They certainly cant risk setting up an organic venture unless they can be sure of getting the premium."

EFOM offer a fixed price contract which allows suppliers to escape the vagaries of the price cycle. (A similar package is also offered for beef.)

Organic pigmeat is now, unlike the lamb markets, completely divorced from the conventional trade, explains Ms Browning.

Many potential organic producers are also discouraged by the absence of suitable retail outlets for the product. Hence EFOMs aim of becoming the "nations organic butcher". Turnover was £600,000 last year. It is expected to reach £900,000 this year.

"It is adding value, all under one roof," says Ms Browning. And this could soon be a bigger roof, with a planning application lodged for further meat processing facilities. &#42

Helen Browning… Earning a premium from organic meat.