Finalist for 2011 Farmers Weekly Awards / Poultry Farmer of the Year, sponsored by Vion

Catherine Armstrong: Sunny Hill Eggs, Detchant Farm, Belford, Northumberland


Not having all your eggs in one basket may be something of a cliché, but it is also a fundamental part of the marketing strategy for Catherine Armstrong, who runs Sunny Hill Eggs in Northumberland.

With a background in marketing, she is naturally attuned to making the most of a sales opportunity and diversifying the customer base.

As such, 80% of the eggs are packed on the farm into two branded lines – Sunny Hill Eggs and Oxenrig – while 20% goes for wholesale. And, of the branded eggs, the business is split into three – between grocery, caterers and other local outlets.

Detchant Farm made the move into poultry in 2005. The 194ha (408-acre) mainly arable farm is held on a traditional tenancy by Catherine’s father, Robert Jackson. But with two of his four daughters returning home, it was clear there was a need to develop another income stream. Free-range hens ticked the box.

With her sister Christine, they initially put up two sheds for 8,000 birds each on the hill behind the main farm buildings.

“To start with we were producing exclusively for the wholesale market,” says Catherine. “But then we got wind that Asda was looking for local produce and that led to the birth of Sunny Hill Eggs.”

Packaging was designed in-house and branded eggs were delivered in their own van to 10 Asda stores in the North East. “Having a brand gives us much more control of the business – we are price makers, not price takers,” she says.

Since then, the Sunny Hill name has grown to become one of the region’s best-known food brands – in no small part due to the dynamism of Catherine and her sisters in getting the name out and about. Stories have been drip-fed to the local media, charity events have been supported, and school visits have been hosted.

Partnerships have also been forged with other local food companies – for example, a tie-up with Doddington Dairy to offer customers a discount on their ice cream. Asda was also involved in a “10 for the price of six” promotion when Sunny Hill launched its “10 in a box” eggs. “We’re really proactive,” says Catherine. “We’ve done a lot with very little.”

But the greatest expansion came in 2008 with the purchase of rival producer/packer Oxenrig, at Coldstream on the Scottish border. This effectively doubled production and provided the incentive to invest in a packing facility at Detchant, doing 550 cases a week.

The market for Sunny Hill and Oxenrig eggs has continued to grow, with direct sales now stretching from Newcastle to Edinburgh. A contract to supply Edinburgh University has helped counter a 10% drop in sales as a result of the Oxenrig eggs no longer carrying the SCO stamp on them.

“Winning and retaining customers is all about exceptional levels of service,” says Catherine. “It’s about delivering the eggs, come rain or snow.”

The Sunny Hill flock has now grown to 57,000 birds, with the most recent investment being in a 16,000 place multi-tier unit. “I do like multi-tier. It’s harder to manage, but we get better revenue and it helps us stay competitive against the bigger players,” she says.

All pullets are supplied by Blue Barns Poultry and feed comes from ABN. “Feed is one area on which we will not compromise. Flock health is also of great importance to us and we run a strict vaccination programme for our 16-week-old pullets.”

Financial management is an equally important part of the business, and all houses are entered into a weekly cost performance table. “We adhere to strict monthly budgets and monitor weekly the volume of eggs sold and at what price.”

The business is turning over about £1.4m a year and loans have been restructured to fix interest charges for the next 10 years.

As for the future, there is no doubt that further expansion will feature, including contract packing for others, though the emphasis now is on consolidation while the harsher economic conditions prevail.


FARM FACTS

• 57,000 free-range hens in five sheds

• 408 acres of mostly arable ground at the home farm

• HLS, Freedom Food and Lion Code accredited

• Three business partners and 20 staff

THE JUDGES LIKED

• Highly skilled marketing approach

• Engagement with local communities

• Attention to detail with suppliers