For over 30 years, David and Helen Brass have been refining their business, The Lakes Free-Range Egg company. With a passion for sustainability, they are building their brand for a future focussed on the environment. Emily Ashworth finds out more.
The middle of the Lake District is an undeniably ideal location to set up a free-range egg company, particularly when, like today, the sun is shining on the much-loved Cumbrian landscape.
But it is more than just a pretty façade. At the heart of The Lakes Free Range Egg Company is a commitment to ethical welfare and sustainability, run by husband and wife, David and Helen Brass, both who are driven to push their already thriving business to its full potential.
David’s family farming history stretches back to the 1870s, and the family finally settled in Stainton, Penrith, in 1935, running a traditional dairy, beef and sheep farm.
After studying Agriculture at Newcastle University, David went on to join the Royal Air Force, enjoying a career as a pilot for ten years before returning home to farm in 1989.
He says: “I came back to the family farm to try and decide what to do.
“We were running around 120 acres but as you can imagine there was not a lot of money being made.
“We did all the things you would to try and make it work and Helen sold eggs from the back door.”
And so, their journey began, with Helen’s flock of 200 Shaver hens.
After just three months, various companies, such as Carrs Agriculture, were approaching them for large repeat orders of eggs.
Fast forward three years, David and Helen were seeing demand for their product grow having built up their flock numbers to 9,000 hens, and they decided it was time to take the business to the next level.
They gave up the beef and sheep to focus on poultry and set up their first factory in 1996 after receiving 5B EARDF funding.
Fate was also on their side, as they set out securing contracts with some of the country’s major retailers, but to move forward they needed to increase their production and sought out other egg producers with the same outlook on welfare standards as themselves.
“Like all things, we had a five-year business plan, but bits of luck come about don’t they?” says David.
“We were approached by Morrison’s asking if we would like to supply them. We had no electric, no cardboard boxes and not enough eggs.
“We went to look around other BEIC Lion certified farms producing free range eggs and set up contracts.
“We still have one of those original farms contracted to us to this day.”
As business boomed, their family grew too, and David and Helen welcomed their two sets of twins in 1995 and 2001 which made balancing the admin and labour between them increasingly difficult. It led them to expanding the brand and increasing staff numbers which now stand at over 100.
It has since become one of the country’s most well-known egg producers, with their various brands – The Lakes, The Lakes Organic and Laid with Love - lining the shelves of Booths, Sainsburys and Tesco to name but a few.
This is partly down to, as David says, luck, but it is also down to the couple’s forward thinking mantra’s and attitude towards business: If you do not have the knowledge, buy it in, embrace technology and move with the trending food climate.
It is, however, their approach to welfare and sustainability that attracts custom, and they were one of the early members of the RSPCA Assured Scheme, praising the initiative for ‘actually raising standards in the industry.’
But their want to not simply rest on their laurels has certainly been a major factor in their success, and both strive to do more than what they simply should to achieve a great product while maintaining environmentally stable.
One of their biggest achievements has been David’s passion for planting trees, which benefit the birds and environment.
At first, this idea was purely a project of love on David’s behalf, but in 2001, they employed Bill Wilson as Sales Director, a sales manager who introduced the company to McDonald’s and, who gave the couple some invaluable mentorship, ‘taking them from a small farm business to a professional food company.’
It was through their relationship with McDonald’s that the couple were asked to prove the value of planting trees, so that it could play a bigger part in their story of provenance.
And it is certainly an idea David is enthusiastic about - ask him to support his practices with evidence and there is no doubt he will find it.
Through research with the Farm Animal Initiative, they found that the use of trees encourages birds to roam even through winter, says David, as well as providing environmental benefits.
He says: “Because the trees allow free roaming, less feather pecking is seen and generally results in happier, healthier birds.”
This idea does not stop at their farm gate either. They are the only egg producers in the country which require their associated farms to have a bio-diversity action plan, and 20 per cent of their producer’s ranges are covered with native trees and shrubs.
Since the beginning, The Lakes has now planted over 230,000 trees, many of which are now maturing, reducing CO2 emissions and cutting their carbon footprint by substantial amounts.
David says: “The aim was carbon neutrality and we got there in 2016”.
“I’m not sure we can claim that today because we added new machinery and doubled the size of the factory in 2018 so we’re probably a little behind.
“But all the glass facing the north absorbs the heat, all glass facing south reflects heat, and the three bore holes in the car park provide heat in the domesticated areas of the building.
“There is also biomass heating in the factories plus solar panels.
“Planting trees works very well for absorbing ammonia so you can trap the plume from any livestock building.
“In the first five years they’re growing, so you have to do a bit of work but for the next 100 years they will do it for nothing.”
David says 20 per cent of his time is spent lobbying about planting trees in the right place. Planting trees now means in 10 years, when the Clean Air Act starts to have effect, they will be making a difference.
It does not take long for David to throw himself in to one of his many ideas, and the aim is to be working in the top 20 per cent of production in the UK.
He says: “If we can do that, we will never go out of business and if we do, the rest of the UK is in serious trouble.
“I don’t think we have ever been out of that top 20 per cent either and it is attention to detail. We have the team in place to give advice and tools and knowledge to our farmers.
“So that first bit of work with the FAI showed us the value of science and improving things.
“Since then, I have become more and more interested in looking at new ways of doing things.
“We need to look for new options and look at being innovative – but innovation involves a bit of risk.”
A relatively new project for David focuses on rearing, and he is now in control of the chicks that come in. He has recently developed and built a dark brooding rearing system that uses 85 per cent less energy than standard rearing facilities.
He says: “You look for where the weaknesses are in the system and rearing is one of them.
“Companies rear chickens from a day old to 16 weeks. The birds get loaded at six in the morning and birds can often travel long distances.
“Birds sleep at night, so why not load them and transport them then? Rearing our own ensures the best care and much shorter journeys to our ranges and our producer farms.”
For David the future of the business is data collection, real time and AI to interpret that data.
“We desperately need data. We’re working on improving our systems and can measure on farm data to the smallest degree, the level of food and water intake, weight gain, acoustics in real time. Farms that use data produce 11.7 more eggs (3 per cent) than farms that don’t. That’s huge,” he says.
After years of hard work, total acreage now extends to 500 acres, with 135,000 free range hens and 30,000 organic birds on site.
They also have contracts with dozens of supplying farmers across the North of the UK.
In 2012 they launched their Laid with Love brand, eggs for the more health- conscious customer. The hen’s feed has added lutein which provides additional antioxidants and gives them extra yellow yolks. From every sale, 2p is also donated to support cancer research.
It is definitely a slick operation, with their newest, state of the art onsite packing station built in 2010 at a cost of £ 4M.
They have also developed their ‘trace your egg’ technology whereby you can type in the code on your eggs and see the farm on which they were laid - as well as watching drone footage of the birds ranging.
“We thought this was what customers would want to see from a free-range egg company,” says David.
Their environmental practices has seen them collect various awards too, including the Queens Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development, International Green Apple Gold Award for Environmental Improvement, Sainsbury’s New Supplier of the Year, McDonald’s Outstanding Contribution Award and Cumbria Life Food and Drink Award for outstanding contribution to food industry, to name but a few in a very long list.
It is safe to say that the couple have accomplished much since returning to the farm, but their values have never changed, and it is that which has propelled them to the top.
David says: “Every single thing you do to improve welfare with chickens will give you more eggs. We haven’t ever done anything that hasn’t given us more eggs. Now that’s a lovely place to be, isn’t it?”