First-generation farmers Alaistaire and Fiona Brice started their free-range egg business in 2003 with just 300 hens in a converted pig hut on rented land. Since then they’ve expanded their flock hugely and created a successful brand supplying 740,000 eggs a week to more than 600 retailers across the region. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
The plan for Havensfield Happy Hens was first hatched in 2003 but it was several years before it took flight. Back then, Alaistaire Brice devoted most of his time to pigs as a fieldsman for British Quality Pigs (BQP). Chickens were a sideline, but he could always see huge potential for his egg business. While living in Eye, Suffolk, Alaistaire and wife Fiona bought a second-hand pig hut and converted it into a hen house.
They rented a 2.5-hectare (six-acre) paddock named Havensfield alongside the house and bought their first 300 free-range layers, selling eggs from the farmgate. The couple met as teenagers at Stowmarket Young Farmers Club and, after finishing school, they lived in Devon where Alaistaire attended Seale-Hayne College while Fiona studied a degree in sport and exercise science at Exeter.
After graduating, Alaistaire started working for BQP while Fiona went into teaching. But her career plans changed after becoming mum to Edward, Evie and Harry, now aged 13, 10 and eight. She says: “Each time I went on maternity leave I got more involved in the farm business.
So eventually I decided not to go back and instead work full-time with Alaistaire.” Their goal was to farm in their own right and Alaistaire spotted an opportunity when an outdoor pig breeding unit came up for sale. He says: “The previous farmer was emigrating to France and it was a great opportunity.
I thought ‘if I don’t do it now, I never will’.” But securing a loan to fund the move proved tricky and the couple were left with few options.
“Our personal bank said pigs were too high risk so we ended up having to use our house as security against the loan.”
Nevertheless he left BQP’s payroll and instead became an agister for the company, rearing pigs on their behalf and eventually building the unit to 1,200 breeding sows.
“The arrangement was I supplied equipment, labour, straw and land and they supplied the pigs, veterinary management and feed. It worked well. We paid off our threeyear business loan in 18 months.”
But Alaistaire was hungry for further independence and seven years later he was able to buy the pigs from BQP and start a standalone business. At the same time he reduced the herd to 600 sows as there was less land available, but he’d reached his goal of farming independently.
Meanwhile, the egg business had been expanding, gaining contracts to supply shops and farmgate sales were booming.
The Brices then bought Birch Farm, Hoxne, where they set up an egg grading and packing plant, investing heavily in the branding of their Havensfield Happy Hen eggs.
This farm was to become their family base and they lived in a mobile home until they were able to build their current house. Alaistaire and Fiona realised there was a lot more potential for this wing of their business.
“The egg business was really growing and we felt there was much more potential in eggs than pigs,” says Alaistaire.
It was always the plan to grow the egg business further.” So when another turning point came in 2014 they were ready to make big changes.
A free-range chicken unit for 16,000 birds came up for sale with 18ha (45 acres) of land in Needham, Norfolk, only two miles from their home. “We decided to sell the outdoor pig herd lock stock and barrel and this capital gave us the deposit on buying the 16,000-bird unit. It was a big decision,” says Alaistaire.
“We were on rented ground for pigs and employed three stockmen. Buying the chicken unit meant a lot of significant changes for us, but we had got to the point where we realised we were trying to push water up a hill with pig farming.
“Success was cyclical with times of profit and loss, but the profits were not coming round as often and the losses were lasting longer.” Buying the chicken unit also gave the couple the potential to build a house on the new farm, something they are currently just completing, providing them with an asset to borrow against in the future should they want to expand further.
The large unit, along with a smaller multi-tier shed at their third site in Stradbroke, took the family’s total flock size up to 20,000 birds. The 16,000-bird flock is in one house, divided into four rooms as free-range flocks can only have up to 4,000 birds, says Alaistaire. In 2014 they also bought an ‘egg round’ from an existing producer in Norfolk who was looking to simplify his business.
This allowed them to expand their reach into the neighbouring county, but it required some changes to the Havensfield brand. “Norfolk has a strong food identity. The Norfolk customers didn’t want our eggs if they were produced in Suffolk,” says Alaistaire. As such, eggs produced in Norfolk are now boxed and labelled to highlight their provenance. “Half our production is in Norfolk and the rest in Suffolk.”
As well as hen eggs, Havensfield also has one Suffolk farm producing goose eggs between January and May, while a Norfolk farm produces duck and quail eggs for the business. Goose eggs are sold in pairs and are popular for eating and baking and also for decorating and craft, says Fiona.
While the poultry industry has offered them great opportunities, there are also significant threats. “Bird flu is the biggest risk to our industry,” says Alaistaire. “All our birds are still indoors, though we are not in a restricted area. “We made this choice as we believe there is still a high risk across the whole country but particularly in our area as we are directly under the flight path for migrating birds.
“Havensfield producers work almost as a collective. It would impact all our farms if one was infected, so we have suggested all our producers do the same and keep birds inside.
By shutting the doors we are preserving all our futures.” Marketing is also a challenge for the future. “The premium for free-range eggs is being eroded as it is no longer a niche product, but the norm. This makes our brand even more important as people buy into a brand and not just the fact they are free-range.”
The Brices now have 145,000 birds across 14 farms, all within about 40 miles of the Hoxne grading and packing plant. “All the birds are free-range. We all use Country Fresh pullets and feed a ration made specifically for us,” says Alaistaire.
The business has 600 independent customers in East Anglia, London and Kent, and two lorries operating five days a week delivering eggs to retail customers and collecting freshly laid eggs on their return to Hoxne, ready for grading and packing. Every week about 15 per cent of eggs are sold into wholesale markets.
Fiona says: “We have to oversupply continuously to make sure we have the right egg sizes and quantities to cope with peak demands at Christmas and Easter. Prices received for those eggs can be poor, so the couple planned to diversify into the liquid egg market to hopefully achieve a better price for surplus and lower grade eggs.
Alaistaire says: “Environmental Health Officers now advise caterers to use pasteurised liquid egg from Tetra Paks rather than shell eggs. We will be able to offer a local and traceable free-range liquid egg while also making use of our lower grade eggs.” As part of their research, the Brices visited another producer in France where they bought their equipment.
They plan to start pasteurisation and marketing their liquid egg in June this year. “We will start with 2,000-5,000 litres per week and grow from there. Farmers can no longer think like they used to and produce what they can. We have to produce what the market wants,” he says. “We now have fewer pigs so eggs are 90 per cent of our business. When we started they were not even 10 per cent.”
The family also have 150 breeding ewes, about half of which are Texels and the remainder are Zwartbles belonging to eldest son Edward. They were bought from Carlisle five years ago. Pigs still remain on the farm with 1,500 breeding sows and about 3,700 of the progeny finished on the farm.
“We now have fewer pigs but we are making more on them. We sell to the local meat trader who supplies local butchers. I transport the pigs to the abattoir myself, about 50-70 every week,” says Alaistaire.
Alaistaire believes there is room for more growth in the egg business but thinks it will plateau at 150,000 birds. “Any more and we would need middle management and lose control of what we are about,” he says. “Egg consumption is increasing.
Five years ago it was 180 per person per year and now it is 185. But it is 225 in France so there is room for more growth. “We are at a size where we can be more flexible and we are confident about business going forward.”