Victoria Shervington-Jones runs a family owned egg business on the Gwent Levels just to the west of Newport, South Wales. Last year she was named Wales woman farmer of the year by NFU Cymru in recognition of the well-regarded local brand she has developed – Country Fresh Eggs, which she runs with her family. She also has two children aged five and three.
The poultry business consists of 39,500 layers, a packing plant and two delivery vans, allowing the business to have full integration of the food supply chain – from producing, to packing and distribution. Their spread of delivery is as far east as Bristol, west to Cowbridge and north to Abergavenny.
Shervington Farms has been in existence for over 40 years, founded as a poultry and dairy operation by Victoria’s late father. Victoria had previously been in charge of the dairy business and had not had much to do with the egg business. However, following the death of her father eight years ago, Victoria decided to move out of dairy and focus on developing the egg business.
“There was never really an option not to carry on and I was the obvious choice,” she says. “It was a natural progression.
“The biggest adjustment was actually talking to customers and dealing with buying and selling eggs because dad did all of that, so it was a steep learning curve, but I love all of that now. It is something I do every day and it is no problem at all.”
Victoria decided to move out of dairy and focus on developing the poultry business. The farm now produces, packs and distribute free range eggs. It also has a recycling operation called Countryside Recycling where it crushes material and can supply recycled aggregate.
The free-range hens on site are housed in flat deck poultry houses. Victoria says they provide the hens with a high standard of welfare, a stress-free environment in which to lay their eggs and a large scratching area within the house. “The hens are free to range outside during the daylight hours and can been seen in our fields. The feed is specially blended to our own recipe and quality controls exist to ensure that every delivery is the same consistent high quality,” she says.
The business employs 16 people and has its own egg packing station with a Moba 2500 egg grader, which was installed five years ago, only the second one in operation in the UK. “This machine loads, grades and packs in one continuous process,” she says. “Part of the process is the passing of the eggs over a candler where they are physically examined for defects such as cracks. We operate stringent quality controls in the whole process so that only quality eggs are packed and distributed to our customers. We operate our own deliveries five days a week in our own vans as well as supplying two major supermarket chains on a regional basis.”
Victoria has worked hard to push the foodservice side of the business, where traditionally, price was the driving factor and free-range eggs rarely sold well. The farm now supplies 700 hotels, shops and restaurants including the Celtic Manor Resort.
“We’ve tried to get into more hotels and really push the local Welsh free range,” she says. We have got a facebook and twitter page and I try to push a lot on there with what we’re doing behind the scenes so it’s not just a box of eggs, customers can see what happens and follow the trail.”
Retail is a hugely important channel too, with 40% of the farm’s eggs going to Tesco. Victoria’s hens are mainly Lohmann Brown hens, which produce notoriously large eggs. More recently, the farm has introduced some Novogen hens supplied by Country Fresh Pullets from Shropshire.
“We wanted to introduce a breed that would produce medium eggs to provide a bigger cross section of sizes to supply the market,” says Victoria.
Winning the award was a huge surprise for Victoria, because until two weeks before the Royal Welsh Show in July where the prize was presented, she had no idea she was in the running.
Wales woman farmer of the year, which as an award is now in its 21st year, seeks to champion the contribution that women make to the agricultural industry and to raise the profile of women in farming.
“It was a massive surprise, I wasn’t expecting it at all,” she says. “I had a phone call a fortnight before the show to say I’d been nominated. The judges came to the farm and had a look around.”
One of the things that impressed the judges, NFU Cymru Deputy President John Davies and Pat Ashman, Sponsorship and Events Manager, Principality Building Society, was Victoria’s approach to the bird flu housing order, which forced her to shut all her free-range birds indoors.
“I’ve got three sheds and although we didn’t have bird flu we had to shut the birds up, which was a massive deal,” she says. After clarifying the rules, she established she could open the pop holes and allow the birds outside, so long as the area was totally covered with netting to ensure there was no possible contact with wild birds. The suggested amount of space was one metre out from the pop holes, but as Victoria puts it, “a metre is nothing, you might as well not bother” – so she chose to invest in ten meters of ranging space. “We spent quite a bit on it and the judges came, saw all that and I think they were quite impressed,” she says.
On the day of the judging, “it was a nice Sunday which always helps,” she says. “We had a walk round the poultry, showed them the sheds and the netting we’d done, took them round the packing stations and showed them how we pack, and that was it. They went away then I was asked to be at the show the day they announced it.
“Then when I got there, I didn’t have any speech prepared or anything, and it was really nice, just really nice to be appreciated,” she says. “Customers know about it and it has been in the press quite a lot. It has helped because I’m really keen on pushing the local brand and it has helped with that.”
Aside from her role as a farmer, Victoria also travels to schools teaching children about food and farming through a programme called Cows on Tour, where farmers take animals to schools.
“I do a lot of teaching in schools and we go into mainly urban schools where they haven’t got a clue where food comes from and we teach them where the eggs come from. There are other animals as well but I deal with the chicken side of it.
“The first time I did Cows on Tour we went to Holloway, a school near the prison in London and it absolutely blew their minds. We took a tractor, a wooden cow, some chickens and chicks. Literally some of these kids hadn’t seen grass. They are so absorbent, they take it all in and they’re really good at asking questions.”
As well as Cows on Tour, Victoria is also a participant in Open Farm Sunday each year by taking chickens and chicks to a neighbouring farm that hosts the event, and speaking to visitors about her work.
Looking ahead to 2018, Victoria is clear the “biggest challenge we are all facing is bird flu”, which so far this winter the UK has managed to avoid.
She also wants to convert one of her sheds to a multi-tier, “so we can increase our numbers a little bit. But the biggest challenge is the bird flu and changing customers’ perceptions so they buy local, so that is my main aim, to not just go for the cheapest egg. Foodservice still needs some work in that area.”
Victoria’s children are now five and three and are becoming fully involved in farm life. “Now they are a bit older, they enjoy helping a bit. When they were a bit younger it wasn’t quite so easy, when they can’t communicate with you and they get a bit frustrated. But now it’s great and they always want to be outside doing what they can come rain or shine.”