Farm business L.J. Fairburn and Son is one of the largest independent egg producers in the UK. The family team at the helm has seen it through a period of unprecedented change and growth. Clemmie Gleeson from Farmers Guardian reports.

Five years ago, the Fairburn family was at a crossroads with its egg production business L.J. Fairburn and Son.

Feed prices had skyrocketed, while egg prices were relatively low and, with a large bank loan to repay, the future was looking uncertain.

What followed was a period of bold decisions, massive investment and hard work to become independent and create their own brands to save the family business, propel it into the future and secure it for the next generation.

The company now produces about 16 million eggs per week, supplying major retailers, and its directors are constantly looking for new opportunities to develop the market for eggs.

The business started in 1951, when Leslie James Fairburn bought 150 hens for £150.

He began producing eggs and grew the flock and business over time, before handing it to son Stuart, who continued to grow it. But in 2013, the family faced some difficult decisions.

Sarah Louise Fairburn says: “The business had borrowed a substantial amount of money to build an inline packing plant and invest in the business in light of the ban on caged birds. Then feed prices went hrough the roof, but egg prices did not increase at the same rate.

Special measures

“We were in special measures with the bank and the bank manager warned us we needed a plan B, as plan A was not sustainable.”

Around the same time Stuart had been diagnosed with cancer, so decided to hand over the running of the business to the next generation.

Son Daniel had been involved in the business all of his working life, but daughters Sarah and Caroline had been working elsewhere before returning to the family business in administration roles.

Daniel’s wife Sarah Louise had worked elsewhere, but at this point, was working in reception and helping with audits.

She says: “Basically, we all had to step up and put in a lot more hours.”

Now Stuart and wife Judith are owners of the business, Daniel is managing director, Sarah Louise is brand and sales director, Caroline Fairburn-Wright is business director, and Sarah Hall is operations director.

Sarah Louise, who previously worked as business improvement driver for Yorkshire Bank, says: “What makes us a strong team is we are all different, so we have different strengths and experiences. We are all in the positions we should be in.

“My father-in-law and grandfather-in-law had been supplying the middle man for 30 plus years, so we took the decision, a very bold decision with hindsight, to go it alone.

“It was by no means easy. We did not even have proper email address at that point. We used a paper calendar on the wall; it was very much a paper-based business. We were great at producing eggs, but needed all those important things in place.”

From the start of this new era, the family was determined all profits would be re-invested in the business and that sustainability was of paramount importance.

Sarah Louise says: “All the feed we use is milled ourselves now and is 100 per cent natural, which is absolutely where we want to be.”

When the Fairburns decided to become independent from Noble Foods, which they previously supplied, a few other local egg producers expressed an interest in joining them. It was not long before the business was able to take them on as suppliers too.

Sarah Louise says: “It happened by accident when we decided to sell our own eggs. Demand grew so much we needed other producers to supply us.

“Since then, we have taken on others in Shropshire, Wales and Yorkshire as well, so we can sell eggs in different areas with real provenance. This makes our packing operation very complex, but we like it, as it shows you can get any type of egg from Fairburns.”

Own units

About 60 per cent of the eggs packed and sold by Fairburns were produced in one of its 18 own units, with the remainder produced on contract by other farmers, says Sarah Louise.

She says: “We are investing massively in organic and free-range high-welfare production and encourage our producers to do the same. Lots of our competitors do not do this; they get producers to make the investment, but are not doing it themselves. We like to put our money where our mouth is.”

All packing takes place in Lincolnshire and the family now has two plants: one near Louth and the other near Skegness. She says: “They were initially 30,000sq.ft, but have now doubled and invested in state-of-the-art egg grading equipment and other improvements, including a new lorry park, improved staff facilities and our egg innovation centre.”

The innovation centre is the hub for various Fairburn projects, including work on developing the taste of the eggs. It is one of the reasons the Fairburns were named Family Farming Business of the Year at the British Farming Awards.

Sarah Louise says: “We are really pushing forward with taste differentiation, using different plant extracts in the hens’ feed to alter the taste of their eggs.”

The company runs lots of trials and taste panels to find the perfect egg for each of the brands it supplies.

One particularly successful development has been the British Blue, a new breed of hen which lays a blueshelled egg. It took two years and £1m investment to perfect the breed before the egg was launched last year. The family’s hard work was soon rewarded with a two-star Great Taste award.

Sarah Louise says: “It is the only blue egg to have an all natural diet and which is 100 per cent British.”

The company produces the blue eggs for two major supermarkets, with birds being fed a slightly different diet for each retailer.

The idea for the blue-shelled egg came from retailers themselves.

Sarah Louise says: “They were looking for a premium range, as free-range has become more mainstream with the move away from caged eggs. They wanted to create a new point of difference.”

The blue eggs are also believed to have a superior taste Sarah Louise says: “They have a large yolk; the scrambled eggs really look and taste amazing.”

It has taken a few years to fully integrate the business, she explains, but now the company is independent from day-old chicks through to feed production, egg production, packing and delivery.

Sarah Louise says: “It means we can be incredibly reactive for our customers. At meetings with supermarkets it is usually me, Lynette from our office and Daniel, my husband.

“Between us, we can answer all their questions. It means retailers can make quicker decisions too.”

The biggest challenge for the business is biosecurity, she says. “Farming always has its challenges keeping production in balance, but biosecurity is the biggest
challenge for us.

“Bird flu has not touched us as a business, thankfully, but we have brought foot dips in place, as well as shower in and out protocols 365 days/year on our farms.

“We do this continuously as best practice to protect our livestock.”

In the future, the family is planning for continued growth and further investment: “We will be working on new breeds of hen, as well as the nutritional value and taste of eggs.

“Above all, we want absolute sustainability. We want to have a business our children will be proud to take on one day. We are trying to make it genuinely fit for the future.”

Being a family team means passion and strength, Sarah Louise says. “My grandfather-in-law used to say ‘if you kick one, they all come out in sympathy’, which just demonstrated we have passion for the business.

“We all feel deeply the business is worth fighting for and it is a generational business.


“We all know what my grandfather and father-in-law fought for and worked hard for and want to continue to invest massively and hand it down to future generations.”

Winning the Family Farming Business of the Year Award gave the L.J. Fairburn and Son team a ‘big boost’, says Sarah Louise.

She says: “For us, it means so much. The fact it was sponsored by Morrisons and a representative shook our hands and congratulated us was great.

“The whole experience was great. Not just for the family, but for the whole team.”