At K-Fresh eggs in East Yorkshire, Chris Kirkwood has done it all – raising poultry as free-range and barn, in outside cages and indoor conventional cages, and now colonies.
“I’ve been producing eggs for more than 40 years – the business has sort of developed as time has gone on,” he says.
But despite his poultry business evolving over the course of decades, his attitude towards marketing has remained consistent.
“As much as we have to sell ourselves, we have to be better than the best – that’s our philosophy,” he says. “You’ve got to jump through every hoop. It’s not just a matter of producing a quality product, but it’s being able to give the service.”
Marketing his eggs began humbly, and has evolved as the way people source their food has also changed.
“Our marketing originally used to be going from door to door, delivering eggs years ago when the housewife was at home and didn’t go out to work,” he says.
“Then times changed and the lady of the house went out to work, so that reduced the time you could deliver and we went to corner shops.
“With the demise of the corner shop we then moved up to the supermarkets. We’ve changed with the times as best we can. We’ve had to remain very flexible in the way we do things.”
Currently his farm produces eggs for second-tier retailers, as well as filling large contracts from ferry companies, schools, nursing homes and prisons.
It was only in the past two years that Mr Kirkwood sought outside help from a marketing company, recommended to him by a supplier, to assist in promoting his eggs to consumers.
This partnership has resulted in the kfresh.co.uk website, which includes detailed videos where Mr Kirkwood presents his production facilities and tells the story of the farm and the food chain.
On the video, he explains to the public why he believes the colony system is the highest welfare system of all, pointing out that no drugs are used, it has the lowest level of mortality and the best feathering levels, and it emulates the birds’ natural requirements.
Such openness is rare in poultry farming. But Mr Kirkwood sees it as a point of pride being able to show people virtually around the farm. And he isn’t worried that the animal rights lobby groups may try to exploit this depth of information.
“Being open about what we do – and proud of it – is one of the easiest ways to sell ourselves,” he says. “I put my head above the parapet 10 years ago regarding welfare and I encourage all the people that have problems with welfare and egg production to come and talk to me to get a true view of the situation, as opposed to a view that lacks knowledge.”
As well as the videos, the website boasts the farm’s sustainability, low food miles and low carbon footprint credentials as part of the overall marketing effort. It also provides information specifically tailored to consumers, schools and people interested in the welfare or environmental impacts of the farm.
“Knowledge is everything,” he says. “It’s having the overall understanding of all the issues. That’s what we try to do, to give people knowledge.” Mr Kirkwood believes such honesty is one of the most effective forms of marketing.
In the past, K-Fresh has hosted school groups at the farm, showing kids how an egg gets to them. But this has been stopped by schools due to workplace health and safety concerns.
“We still do group visits. Tonight we’ve got a young farmers group coming around. But we do need to be careful regarding biosecurity,” Mr Kirkwood says.
Now the farm focuses on hosting local MPs and decision-makers to give them a better understanding of egg production and poultry farming.
“The important thing as far as I am concerned is to show decision-makers around and that’s why I invite the welfare people and the MPs to the farm, ” says Mr Kirkwood. If we are going to make a change, they are the people you need to be talking to.”
The evolution of K-Fresh and its attitude to marketing – from direct contact to harnessing the internet and influencing important decision-makers – has shown Mr Kirkwood the importance of remaining flexible.
“There’s nothing I would change, but you’ve got to be unblinkered. I often use that term, and you need to be willing not to get set in your ways.”