When the Potter family got into eggs, they were serving a niche market. Now about half of all eggs sold direct to the public are from free-range hens like theirs.
Or maybe not quite like theirs, they would like to say.
Free range no longer means what it did when Susan Potter set out to supply her own kitchen at Village Farm, Catton, back in 1980.
Nowadays, you would need to find a smallholding run as a hobby to see anything like the scene off the front of a Ladybird book. To sell competitively to supermarkets, at prices dictated by giant packers handling 90 per cent of the supply, you have to be counting your hens in the hundreds of thousands and your investment in millions.
The Potters have stayed in the game by doing that. They have been inviting the press in to see a new French machine, first of its kind in this country, which cost £300,000 to buy and set up, and that was on top of £5m spent on shed improvements in five years.
The machine photographs every egg from 17 angles to check for dirt, cracks, blood spots in the white – entirely natural but offputting to the customer – and/or too pale a shell. Rejects are automatically diverted from the pre-packing conveyor, to be sold to the catering trade. The inspection job is known as “candling”.
The candles were replaced long ago but even in the age of electricity, peering at eggs passing a bright light is a strain, and two packhouse workers assigned to the job at Catton would switch every half an hour. The machine, a SeeMax Evolution, saves some labour.
But it is also more reliable and the main point of it is to give the buyers guarantees of minimum waste and maximum customer satisfaction.
The business is called Yorkshire Farmhouse Eggs. But its main brand is James Potter Eggs. Susan Potter and her husband, Roger, are still part of it.
But the face on the packs is their son James, 36, who is most hands-on with the farming. His brother, Adrian, 34, mainly runs the sales and marketing but the whole business is a family collaboration.
A sister, Rebecca, 29, went away to London to qualify as a lawyer and accountant but has returned to work in an associated business called the Yorkshire Farmers Market – of which more later.
Another 30 employees are nowadays involved in the Yorkshire business, which includes another farm at Ripon and the packing operation at Catton. But the Potters can fairly claim to be at the heart of it, from start to finish, and they have put a lot into turning their name into a brand. They sell Potter eggs through Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, mainly in Yorkshire, and contribute to a Sainsbury’s own-brand called Woodland.
The candling machine is an investment in quality assurance, says Adrian.
“There is nothing unusual about free-range eggs anymore. We aim for free-range plus.”
The two Yorkshire farms have 200,000 hens between them and with other local farms contributing, they pack up to two million eggs a week – up 250 per cent in five years.
The extra pence buy Freedom Food standards as well as the usual British Lion standards. The Lion brand is a good hygiene assurance.
Freedom Food, an RSPCA subsidiary, is more about bird welfare. Yorkshire Farmhouse hens have at least a hectare of outside space for every 2,000 birds – 800 to an acre – which looks like a comfortable allocation on a sunny morning, when the hens are taking advantage of their daytime freedom to leave the sheds. Some tree cover helps encourage them to go out, foraging. And the sheds are nearly all now multi-tiered inside, which gives the birds a variety of perches and lighting, mimicking their jungle origins.
They come in at 17 weeks and James Potter says he can keep them to 80 weeks, against an industry standard of 72. They are productive for longer because they are healthy, he says. And although we are looking at birds towards the end of their working lives, there is no sign of the baldness caused by feather-pecking. He is clearly proud of them.
“Keeping them healthy is in our interests,” he says. “You only get five or six eggs a week out of one hen at best. The way to more productivity is to have them all laying.”
He eats three eggs a day, he mentions, and recommends them scrambled with a pinch of chilli.
Yorkshire Farmhouse Eggs owns a similar business in the South-East and half of another in the Midlands. Between them they are now probably one of the two or three biggest free-range egg production businesses in the country.
Even so, it has been “a difficult two years”, Adrian admits, with feed and fuel prices all over the place and egg prices held down by a rush of investment in free-range, ahead of the upgrading of cage standards on January 1 this year. Now, legal eggs from cages are in short supply and the free-range producers, who were already ahead of the requirements, are filling the gaps and waiting for payback.
It is too early to say what that means in terms of pence per dozen, says Adrian, but the move has started – and, he guesses, consumers will have to come up with a bit more for their shopping before it is over.
The RSPCA would like to see off cage-produced eggs altogether. Only a few years ago, that seemed like ridiculous idealism. But free-range systems have got so efficient it is at least possible. Adrian has worked out it would cost the average consumer only £5 or £6 a year to buy their eggs instead.
Five years ago, after discussions with Asda, the farm became a hub for a range of other locally produced foods. Now the Yorkshire Farmers Market supplies Tesco too and is supplying so far outside the Yorkshire boundaries a change of name is under discussion.
It is run by Rachel O’Brien and Amanda Peberdy, who both worked for Asda before, in buying and marketing, and they specialise in taking small manufacturers over the big step from farm shops, farmers’ markets and local delis to dealing with supermarkets.
Among their 60 food producers are Curry Cuisine, in the course of going national from Dewsbury with a range of Asian sauces and pickles made with Yorkshire ingredients; Yorkshire Outdoor Pork Sausages, made on a farm in Wetherby; and several small brewers in the booming market for bottled beers with a local angle.
Interested potential customers and producers would be welcomed at a producers’ day planned for June 14. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org