We are a third-generation family business founded by my grandfather, Leslie James Fairburn, in 1951. The company is owned by my parents Stuart and Judy, but I became managing director in 2012 and have overseen our dramatic transformation from a contract supplier to a fully vertically integrated hen-rearing and egg-producing business.
I’m supported by my wife Sarah Louise, who is brand and sales director. My sister Caroline is business director, and my other sister, Sarah Hall, is operations director. We all live and breathe the business, and our family values and sustainability are at the heart of everything we do.
Farming has always been in my blood. From a young age I’d be out on the farm helping my father and grandfather, tending to the chickens and developing my knowledge of efficient poultry production.
My father invested in organic farming back in the 1980s when it wasn’t such a big deal. Having that foresight meant we had the full range of egg production in place – colony (caged), barn, free-range and organic – which put us in a strong position when we went direct to retail in 2012.
At that time, we were packing eggs for Noble Foods and had never dealt directly with retailers before. We approached Aldi, and they gave us a shot with two caged lines. Despite having just one lorry, we managed to fulfil the order.
‘How far we’ve come’
Today, we have 102 packing lines, which shows how far we’ve come. I don’t think there is another example in our sector where a company has grown so rapidly, but we’ve made sure it has been sustainable by investing back into all areas of the business.
We now own more than four million laying and rearing hens, with a further one million contract-producer owned. We rear in excess of two million pullets every year for use and re-sale and, to support this, we mill more than 80,000t of feed a year – including grain grown on our 2,000-acre arable farm. All of this together means we pack 17 million eggs a week.
If one area of the business grows, we invest in other areas to support it – so it becomes a cycle. Being in control of the whole process helps us manage costs. It also fits in with the carbon footprint agenda and having a secure supply chain, which retailers love.
We had one retail customer in 2012, and now we have eight. We hope to continue adding to that number as we grow, to further mitigate our risk. Aldi remains our biggest customer – they take all of our caged eggs – and, in many ways, their growth in the UK reflects ours.
It’s fair to say we’ve sacrificed profit for growth at times, but we now have a strong enough base to take the business to new levels. Ongoing investment in our breeder flocks is enhancing our potential around speciality eggs, as demonstrated by our British Blue variety.
Journey to British blue
British Blue took us three years to develop, but the journey has been worth it. There was already a blue egg product on the market, but that colour is achieved by adding synthetics to the hens’ diet, whereas our version is developed naturally. We feed our birds ingredients as diverse as marigold, maize, paprika and sunflower, to create a premium speciality product with a larger yolk sack than a standard egg.
Selective hen breeding is also allowing us to develop other speciality products, such a free-range egg with omega 3, and a free-range golden yolk. We’re also in the stages of developing a British Brown egg, similar to British Blue. Current brown varieties on the market tend to have scratch marks – we’re looking at producing one that is consistently brown all over.
Hen welfare is vitally important to us. A quarter of our production is from caged hens – which perfectly matches the market – but we are taking measures to meet the declaration by retailers to end the sale of cage-produced eggs by 2025.
My father always used to say that you’ve got to think like a chicken, so I came up with a novel multi-tier rearing system for one shed. Intermediate levels inside the system enable the pullets to jump and fly at an early age, which has resulted in a reduction in keel bone damage.
We are also in the process of adding another organic rearing unit for 16,000 birds, which will be the first of its type in the UK to allow them to go outside from 12 weeks of age. The welfare agenda will only increase, and we want to be ahead of the game.
Investment into the business continues apace. Our packaging centre at Burgh le Marsh, which only opened in 2013, is being extended – and we are moving our offices there, too. The centre houses a full traceability system from Ovotrack and Moba egg-grading technology.
We will continue to invest in more sheds, new milling equipment, more lorry fleet and welfare improvements. We also plan to move into further processing, whether that’s liquid egg or something more premium, such as Scotch
eggs, potato and egg salad, or crème brûlée.
We’re working with the University of Lincoln to create products that we can take to retailers. Achieving that will complete the final piece in the supply chain of what has been an incredible journey.
LJ Fairburn & Son
Headquarters: Ivy House Farm Office, Farlesthorpe Road, Alford, Lincs, LN13 9PL
Operations: 94 units, 21 farms
Staff: 270 (plus 30 agency)
Products: Free-range eggs including organic and barn (72%); colony eggs (28%).
Customers: Aldi, Asda, Bidfood, Costco, Co-op, Gousto, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s.
Packing lines: 102
Output: 17 million eggs a week.
Daniel Fairburn: “When I’m not spending time with our four children, I do my best to get to Man Utd games.”