Since Poultry World last visited Sunny Hill Eggs there have been many exciting new developments. Lucy Knowles talks to sister’s Christine Jackson and Catherine Armstrong for an update

Sunny Hill Eggs, in Northumberland, is focusing on building the retail side of its business and is looking forward to its forthcoming merger with Oxenrig Eggs in August 2008.

The sister’s set up the free-range egg company on Detchant Farm near Belford, a 405ha (1000-acre), mixed unit run with their parents.

They first began production with packing contracts in 2005, but by the following year, the business had already grown rapidly and in the summer of 2006, the sisters started retailing some of their own eggs under the brand “Sunny Hill Farm Free range Eggs,” says Mrs Armstrong, who is partner of Detchant Farm and assists with the running of Sunny Hill Eggs.

“We felt that there was a market because there aren’t many other free-range egg producers in Northumberland,” she says.

The sisters were soon asked to supply eggs to 10 local Asda stores as part of a local sourcing incentive. And they now market the eggs directly to restaurants, deli’s and caterers (see March 2007 Poultry World p20).

The egg unit has 32,000 laying birds and in 2007, they decided to add to this with a new 6000-bird organic shed. Further expansion is going ahead in the summer with another 16,000 free-range poultry shed being built on a nearby site in June.

“We have built a new shed every year for the past three years,” says Christine Jackson.

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John Campbell of Glenrath Farm agreed to buy the eggs from the poultry house. And in March 2007, the sisters decided to switch everything to Glenrath Farm, to cut down on food miles, bringing the focal point closer to home.

Mrs Armstrong says: “Glenrath buys all the eggs for us now and we buy some of them back. They are contracted to pack them for us and a proportion come back to us in our branded boxes.”

Having obtained planning permission on a nearby farm for a new 16,000-bird free-range unit, the sisters are now concentrating on the retail side of the business and will be packing their own eggs. So there are no immediate plans to expand any further after the shed is completed this summer.

“We are adding a flock at the moment, but there are no planning applications for further sheds. I don’t believe in putting hens down for the sake of it. The market is good at the moment, but we want to expand the retail side of the business,” says Miss Jackson.

With plans for the merger with Oxenrig Eggs well and truly in the pipeline, she adds: “We are predicting that our retail sector will increase quite dramatically, because we have amalgamated with Oxenrig Free Range Eggs. They were our main competitor within the region, so it was a natural progression. We will take on their customers and their brand and most of what we produce here at Sunny Hill we will retail ourselves, with our own grading station.

“The next three months will be really challenging. Oxenrig starts on 1 August, so we have to get ourselves prepared. We are also putting more hens down and getting our grading station up and running.

“We want to grow the business with Sunny Hill and Oxenrig eggs, to produce good quality eggs.”

The sisters have established an excellent partnership with Peter and Sarah Calder of Oxenrig eggs. “Mrs Calder will work with us to make sure there is a smooth transition for her customers, which is important,” says Miss Jackson.

Oxenrig Eggs supply to outlets across the Scottish borders, Northumberland, Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Miss Jackson became a Nuffield Scholar in 2007, and will present her report to The Nuffield Conference in November.

It has given her great opportunities to travel the world, studying the free-range egg market. She has recently returned from a seven-week trip to America, Australia and New Zealand and says it was a fact-finding trip, to find out what is going on with egg production, on a worldwide scale.

“I’ve seen lots of fantastic businesses and have got some great ideas. I’ve been able to learn a lot and I’ve gained a massive amount of personal development from it all,” she says.

“The scale of America blew me over with their vast cage systems, but I’ve come back with the impression that the UK has built a good egg industry over here.”

Miss Jackson believes they made the right decision when they went into the egg market. “It’s a job that we all thoroughly enjoy, it’s a great challenge.

“The past four years have been great and I’m sure the next few years will be just as good.”

Sunnyhill plans

  • New 16,000 free-range shed ready in Summer 2008
  • Amalgamating with Oxenrig in August 2008
  • Focusing on retail expansion