Ben Wharfe's family have farmed near Knutsford in Cheshire, U.K., for three generations, but egg production is a new direction. As an egg producer, Wharfe has, however, followed in his father's philosophy of using sustainable farming methods to help him build a successful free range egg business, and was recently named Free Range Egg Producer of the Year in the British Free Range Egg Producer Awards.
Commenting on the success, Wharfe said: "I did not know I had been nominated for the Free Range Egg Producer Award. I was nominated by my egg packer, Noble Foods, and the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) which runs the awards, short-listed us.
"We were absolutely delighted and surprised to be nominated and it was great to win."
When asked why they won, Wharfe says: "There are many very good new free-range units in the U.K. which are achieving good animal welfare, good performance and doing a lot for the environment including producing renewable energy. The things that perhaps tipped the balance might be our efforts to reduce and monitor carbon reduction and the promotion of free-range and agriculture through Open Farm Sunday."
Wharfe and his wife Maxine housed their first flock of 12,500 birds on a 60-acre farm in September 2011 and have kept the flock at this size. Although his parents farm, Wharfe decided to establish a new business on a different site while still sharing resources with the family. Ben and Maxine live on their farm with their three children, Lydia, 4, James, 2, and Harrison, six months.
Egg farming in environmental harmony
His parents, who once had a dairy farm, decided to farm beef cattle, cereals and lamb in 2005 when there was a rise in the incidence of bovine tuberculosis and falling milk prices. Since the 1980s, Wharfe's father has been an advocate of sustainable farming, long before it became popular. He advocated low use of nitrogen, crop rotation and farming in harmony with the environment and nature.
Wharfe's father has spent all his farming life using environmental and sustainable methods, and Wharfe uses them too.
"It is important with finite energy resources, water and feed resources, to continue farming in this way," he says.
So when Wharfe set up his poultry farm, he bought a second-hand traditional flat deck system from a farm in Herefordshire. Inside, instead of the multi-tier towers going down the interior and higher stock density, there are fewer birds. Wharfe opted for this system because the more modern, tower systems have more perches and more birds per square metre, but can be very expensive to set up.
The sheds were dismantled in Hereford and brought back to Cheshire, where they were reassembled using layouts and designs drawn up by Wharfe, who added ventilation and more equipment. The reassembling took time, and Wharfe admits: "We were not sure what we were letting ourselves in for."
Open Farm Sunday
Planning permission took longer than anticipated, too. It took 12 months, with many locals mounting a campaign against the poultry farm, based purely on old-fashioned stereotypes and the stigma attached to the poultry industry. Wharfe was therefore pleased when the planning committee voted 9-to-1 in favor of the farm.
Thankfully, things have moved on and Wharfe and his family have good relations with their neighbors. This has been helped by their first Open Farm Sunday, held last year, giving locals an opportunity to find out what it means to be a farmer. The farm will be opening again to the public this summer.
"It is important for the free range industry to engage with consumers and tell them what we are doing and why. If we don't tell our story then someone else will and it is very important to take consumers with us," Wharfe says.
The free-range hens that Wharfe farms are reared in the Midlands. They arrive at 16 weeks and lay for 56 weeks until they reach 72 ,when they are sent to a poultry processor. Each bird lays on average 329 eggs while they are at the farm. At their peak, production will be at 95 percent. The last flock produced more than 4 million eggs in a year.
Foraging for wild flowers
The Wharfes supply on contract to the happy egg co, part of Noble Foods, while a small percentage of their eggs are sold locally to pubs, restaurants and shops. Happy egg has very high standards for hen welfare and environmental enrichment. The company is very stringent and conducts a regime of checking hens every seven weeks with a very detailed audit every six months to ensure producers meet their standards.
The seven-week checks look at the enrichment inside the shed, litter area and hen entertainment, which includes nutritious pecking blocks, hay nets hung up to peck at, footballs and hand-built dust baths. They also look at feather cover and score the hens accordingly. Any bare patch may become an issue. But feather loss is also calculated on the age of the bird. If the hens do not make the score, they cannot supply to happy egg.
Other farm inspectors include the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), whose inspections are unannounced, Lion Code and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Inspections tend to be around once a month and the criteria for issues, if there are any, depends on the severity of them, whether they are critical, aspirational or non-conforming.
At Wharfe's farm, however, he says: "We score highly and aim to have the highest standards possible to stay on top and have a positive impact on the environment and promote free-range agriculture and British farming to consumers."
Additionally, Ben and Maxine have established the Fresh Local Loved brand, which differentiates itself by delivering eggs locally the same day that they are laid, and so allowing consumers to receive maximum freshness, maximum taste and maximum enjoyment. Birds forage for food, including grasses and wild flowers, outside and Wharfe believes the range and wide variety of feed in the diet also will help to influence the quality and taste of the eggs.
As part of this commitment to high standards, Wharfe initiated the North West Egg Producers Training Programme. There are not many specific commercial courses for egg producers, and this gives them the training and support they need, focusing on theory, knowledge and skills.
Recently, however, Wharfe has been very aware of three pressures on the free range egg market.
"Heavy discounting of colony eggs to increase the volume traded through retail will put downward pressure on free range egg prices," he says. "Secondly, the packers, who are between the producers and retailers, are becoming increasingly fragmented and, in some cases, entering into aggressive competition which is destabilizing the market.
"Several packers are looking for extra supplies and offering above-market prices to producers. If this stimulates new sheds and new flocks, it will create a surplus of free range. We have already received GBP0.05 (US$0.08) per dozen drop in our egg price this year, many other packers are decreasing the prices paid to their producers by the same amount. If we move to an increasing surplus in supply, this will only go down further," Wharfe said.
"Five pence per dozen equates to about GBP17,000 (US$28,355) per flock reduction in net profit, if all producers receive a similar cut, the aggressive tactics by a minority of packers will be costing all producers at least GBP1.50 (US$2.50) per bird per flock. The concept of divide and conquer is as old as civilization, and I believe there is great strength in unity and would urge producers to take a long-term perspective when considering new contracts."
Feed also has been subject to great price volatility and this has been a massive issue. There were huge spikes in prices in 2007, 2009 and 2012, which made budgeting and planning difficult.
Wharfe found this to be the case, especially when he was setting up: "We did all our planning based on feed at GBP200 (US$335) per ton and our first delivery was GBP300 (US$500) per ton. Feed makes up 65 percent of all our costs."
"Producers are reliant on soya from South and North America, and we import approximately three million tons in the U.K. We are generally domestically self-sufficient in feed wheat, but completely subject to global prices affected by political, transport, weather and food factors," he said.
To help build a more sustainable future, Wharfe installed solar panels in July 2012. He has found that the panels have reduced the amount of electricity used by around 30-40 percent. It will take 7 years to recoup the cost of the panels, but the savings are not only on the electricity bill - an important amount of carbon dioxide has been saved, too. The system produced 24 megawatts in the first year, saving the equivalent of 14 tons of carbon dioxide.
"It's a big positive for the environment and producers. We are also working toward a Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) accreditation, which we hope to get this year," Wharfe says. LEAF promotes sustainable food and farming, integrated farm management, and a holistic approach to farm and farm environment.
Wharfe's commitment to sustainable farming and positive approach to the environment, making it work for his farm and for others, is paying off: "We try and make and produce the best eggs that will set us apart from other systems and other countries." As Wharfe's Free Range Egg Producer award testifies, his methods are working.