Lincolnshire-based LJ Fairburn never intended to become the largest independent egg producer and packer in the country. In fact, they never intended to become an independent packer at all.
Up until five years ago, the third-generation family business, based at Alford, was a contract producer for Noble Foods.
But after negotiations on price reached a stalemate, the family decided to walk away and set up on their own.
It was a difficult period for everyone involved, but Sarah-Louise Fairburn, the brand manager, who’s married to managing director Daniel Fairburn, says they’re keen to leave the past behind and embrace the future. “Everybody knows the story and I feel like we’ve moved on,” says Sarah-Louise. “In a way I’m grateful to them because it’s made the business a lot better for us and our customers.”
Since then it has invested heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, land and livestock, and signed contracts with many of the UK’s major multiples, plus launched its own award-winning speciality products and has actively built its own network of farming producers.
LJ Fairburn is now supplying 17 million British Lion-approved eggs each week to seven leading retailers and its growth looks set to continue.
It’s a success story that’s just won them the title of Poultry Business of the Year, at the National Egg & Poultry Awards, which the family collected at the ceremony and awards dinner on 26 June in at Kensington Garden Hotel in London.
So how has the business managed to grow so much and become the largest independent producer and packer of eggs in such a short timeframe? In short, it’s involved a lot of investment.
“When we first went alone and left Noble Foods we only had a packing centre that was in line with colony, but we needed to have a packing centre that could pack all our organic, all our barn eggs and all our free-range,” says Sarah-Louise.
The business now has 80 units across 17 farms and has two high-tech packing centres. Milling, manufacture of bespoke feeds, pullet rearing and egg production all take place on site.
When the first packing centre was opened it was 30,000 square feet. “We thought it was going to be plenty,” says Sarah-Louise. Now, it’s expanded into the unit next door and floor space has doubled to 60,000 square feet, plus a mezzanine floor has been installed to store packaging materials.
New Moba graders have been installed and two more are on the way, plus £2 million has been ploughed into robotics. “People can’t physically pack eggs quick enough to keep up with capacity so the robotics just help us increase efficiencies, and they make everything run a lot more efficiently in the packing centre,” says Sarah-Louise. “And because we’ve got such an increased growth in demand from customers, we need that. “Literally every penny we’re making it’s going straight back into the business and that’s the way it’s going to continue.”
Automation has been particularly important because the business handles so many different types of egg – 84 in total – from Taste the Difference Golden Yolk for Sainbury’s to Asda Extra Special, organic, blue eggs, and dozens of other lines for different retailers.
In the next 12 months there will be continued investment in its packing centres, as well as new offices, staff welfare facilities and an innovative development kitchen.
Big changes are also afoot in the farming operation. The business has made the decision to phase out enriched colony cages far ahead of the 2025 deadline and move to barn systems for its value egg offering.
Currently colony cages make up around 15% of the business, with the majority free-range and organic.
Sarah-Louise says they’ve decided to switch to barn systems rather than go totally free-range because of the risk of undermining the status of free-range as a premium product and stripping value out of the supply chain.
“We’ve decided to go barn because it’s a value product,” she says. “Free-range is not a value product – look at all the space you have to have for free-range. What if we had a bad bout of avian influenza and everything was free-range? It just doesn’t make sense.”
The changes are already underway, despite the fact they only installed some of the newer colony systems in 2012 and are still paying for them. “We want to be cage-free well ahead of 2025 as a family,” she says.
“Barn has far better welfare than a colony but it is far more affordable than free-range, with less risk to the hen, so you’re not going to have problems with the birds getting diseases out on the range. You don’t have to have the land space which you don’t have to pay for, so that’s the way we’re going as a business across the board.”
Difficult and expensive
Converting the systems to barns isn’t an easy or cheap, but Sarah-Louise says it’s the right move. “Actually I hated the old caged systems because I wasn’t from farming originally. When I first went in a caged shed I said, ‘I hate this, I really don’t’ like this’. And when we changed over to the new enriched systems in 2012, both Daniel and I said we feel a lot better about this, and Daniel said to me at the time, ‘Yes, but our children won’t like this’.
“So now we think we should have gone straight to barn in 2012 [rather than covert battery cages to enriched colony systems]but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s what everyone was doing at the time.
“That’s what we did and that’s what we invested in, but we do think that barn is a sustainable approach in terms of farming and security of the site. You can’t have everything free-range in terms of AI if anything happened.”
She expresses some concern that if too many retailers and egg producers convert to free-range once retailers stop taking caged eggs in 2025, there will be no basic tier and the value will be stripped out of the market because free-range will be seen as a baseline.
“We want to ensure that free-range is not a value egg, because it’s not a value egg,” she says. “Too much investment has been made, not just by us but by our producers and by other packers’ producers who we also care about because we’re all in the same industry. One day we want our children to have a business that is sustainable. Customers are buying free-range eggs because they are a reasonable price, but they need to be at the right price because it’s a premium product not a value product.”
Despite this, the majority of Fairburn’s business is free-range and organic, and this side of the business is continuing to grow, with organic production up 22% in the past year alone. Also in the past year new laying sheds have been added and a new organic milling line installed.
The firm has also grown its network of trusted farming partners to 40 – as well as buying their eggs, Fairburn’s purchases raw materials from many of them to mill into top quality feed at its own milling centre. And there has been further investment in its 18-strong lorry fleet delivering to supermarkets across the UK and has expanded its staff team to 250 employees.
The next 12 months will see further focus on developing higher welfare, artisan-style egg products by Fairburn’s in-house geneticist and breeding team.
This work has resulted in the development of a new breed, the British blue, which was bred from the grandparent stock to the birds that are in lay today, producing a blue-hued egg which is unique to Fairburn’s.
“We have a breeding site now,” says Sarah-Louise. “It is all high welfare and all our hens are on a 100% natural diet. We don’t feed them anything synthetic to try and get them to get the yolk bright orange. Our yolks are a nice orange through marigolds, paprika, sunflowers and it’s all natural.”
Long term plan
Looking to the future, Fairburn’s has no plans to slow its expansion and big ambitions. “The main goal is for the kids one day to take the business on,” says Sarah-Louise. “Daniel and I have four children and my two sisters in law Caroline and Sarah who are also directors have two children each, and we want the business to be left in a great standing.”
That means on a practical level Fairburn’s is trying to find commercial uses for what at the moment are waste products. “We want to make sure we are completely utilising the supply chain,” she says.
The firm is looking into setting up an operation to manage its own second eggs. “We’re also setting up projects to see if there’s anything we can do with premium speciality dishes using old hen meat for example. We’re looking at so many different avenues with anything that’s a waste product.
“We need to keep investing otherwise you get behind the times,” she adds. “We want to have a business that is fit for the future and the kids can push and take it on and hopefully take it to another level.”