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Award-winning farmer innovates to crack market

Published: 08 June 2017

Deciding to go free-range way back in 2001 was a smart move for Ty Mawr Farm in Gwent. After a steep learning curve and through investment in key innovations, Victoria Shervington-Jones was named Welsh Woman Farmer of the Year in 2017.

The journey to award-winning success has not been easy for Victoria. For 50 years, her father David and mother Ingrid ran a well-respected dairy business. But, when David died in 2001, the family was forced to sell the business and the herd of 300 cows. At the time, it cost 26p to produce a litre of milk, while the farm was paid just 21p.

With milk no longer financially viable, Victoria and Ingrid decided to concentrate on egg production. It meant a steep learning curve for the pair. “I have to admit we were in a bit of a mess when Dad died, but we’ve learnt so much,” says Victoria.

Cutting out the middleman
Although the farm had kept battery hens and broilers before, the family saw an opportunity to add value to their eggs by getting into what was a niche market in 2001 – free-range production.

“My Dad’s strong reputation had helped build a good distribution network which allowed us to cut out the middleman and sell our own eggs direct,” explains Victoria. This helped increase margins for the family.

Funding innovation for growth
The farm, Ty Mawr near St Brides, then revolutionised its egg grading and packing process 12 years ago by investing £250,000 in an egg packing grader, only the second of its type in the UK at the time of its installation. It was 40 per cent funded by a Welsh Government grant, with the rest being paid using a loan from AMC. “Those loans have already been paid off,” says Victoria.

In 2016, with the business thriving, Victoria was able to pay for a £20,000 egg packing machine for the 16,000-bird shed, which included an egg grader, to ensure quality.

“It has cut labour hours from a full day to just two hours,” she says. “We’ll be aiming to get another for one of the other sheds too.”

“AMC provided support for a lot of the infrastructure of the poultry business, but the relationship first started when we financed the expansion of the original dairy business,” says Martin Waite, AMC Regional Agriculture Manager.

AMC has since helped finance two purpose-built sheds, followed by a third converted from a cattle shed. Victoria’s newest plans are to expand the flock of birds by converting one of the single-deck sheds to multi-tier.

Nurturing an award-winning business
The farm currently has 40,000 hens free to roam the 40 acres during daylight and housed in flat-deck poultry sheds overnight.

Despite its success, Victoria had no idea she’d been nominated for the 2017 farming award until she received a phone call to arrange a farm visit.

“It couldn’t have been a worse time,” she says. “We were in the middle of the bird flu situation and our birds were not happy about being kept locked in. Instead of the one-metre enclosure suggested for the side of the shed, we installed a 10-metre run with netting and I think the judges appreciated our efforts.

“We still have that infrastructure, though we removed the netting. It means we can act very quickly if bird flu returns.”

Providing reassurance to customers was also important during the outbreak of avian flu, but Victoria had already recognised communication as an important tool for the business and the wider industry. “Perhaps one of the biggest changes over the course of running the farm has been how important it is to promote the business.

“I use Twitter and Facebook a lot and we also do things like Open Farm Sundays and Cows on Tour to educate people about farming more generally.”

Introducing new produce
Named Country Fresh Eggs, the business employs 16 people and supplies 700 shops, hotels and restaurants. Three vans make deliveries five days a week – 700 calls in a delivery round that stretches from Bristol in the east to Neath in the west. In addition, around 40 per cent of its production is sold to a major supermarket chain. “They send their order through at 5am and the eggs are on the shelves that evening,’’ says Victoria.

“Eighty per cent of the produce we sell to them is large eggs, but we also wanted to introduce a breed that would produce medium-sized eggs.” So, for the first time, the farm has stocked with Novogens alongside the Lohmann Brown hens renowned for producing large eggs.

Finance support
“I’ve known the family for a long time and I’m full of admiration for the way Victoria and Ingrid picked up the business after David’s death,” adds Martin.

“The death of a partner is always a major blow, particularly when that partner runs the business, but their management skills, professionalism and sheer grit saw them through to take control of a business that is stronger than ever.”

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