A day in the life of an East Devon egg farmer
- Credit: Tony Fowler
Over the past few months, many businesses have had to adapt to a different situation and with home baking growing egg farmer Tony Fowler is just one of them.
The public’s renewed passion for home baking and cooking over the past few weeks has had a significant impact on producers of raw ingredients.
Essential items such as flour and eggs have been flying off the shop shelves and sometimes, it has been challenging for the producers to keep apace with demand.
Honiton egg farmer, Tony Fowler and his family have seen an exponential rise in demand for their free-range eggs and with the temporary closure of many local restaurants and cafes, he adapted his usual business model to accommodate people’s needs during lockdown.
We caught up with Tony at Middle Knapp poultry farm in Putts Corner to discover what a typical day for an egg farmer is like right now...
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At the crack of dawn Tony is up and ready for another busy and long day ahead. The clock reads 6.45am and he is already outside walking in the direction of the two purpose-built poultry houses to encounter the ‘rush hour’ of the day. And ‘rush’ is exactly 6,000 hens do when Tony opens the shed gates in the morning. Sometimes they charge out so quickly they knock him over. As the chickens begin their happy day of roaming freely around the 20 acres of farmland, Tony and his family get to work.
After distributing the poultry feed to the chickens, Tony is gathering and packing the freshly laid eggs, before stamping them with a code that is unique to the farm. Once the eggs are securely packed, he then ventures back to the farmhouse for some toast for breakfast. He usually eats his eggs at dinnertime.
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This morning ritual began for Tony and his family 15 years ago when he branched out into egg production. In the early days, life involved juggling three jobs to make ends meet and accrue the funds to achieve his ambition of owning his own egg farm.
He said: “I had three jobs before I became a full-time egg farmer. During the day I would work on the farm and look after the chickens. Then, at 4pm, I would begin the twilight shift for ABN Poultry Feed in Cullompton as a lorry driver. I would deliver the poultry feed until I clocked off at 12am. I also worked as a delivery driver for Tesco at weekends.”
Inspired by his many interactions with other local poultry farmers, Tony decided to acquire some land to start his own egg producing business full time. To establish a foothold, Tony said: “I decided to put up the chicken shed with the intention to pack in the driving”. Which is exactly what happened. Nowadays, he is a customer of ABN Poultry Feed…
After breakfast Tony is ready for his first set of deliveries of the day. His customer base has changed since the pandemic hit. Previously, Tony delivered largely to the wholesale market to customers such as Waitrose. Yet, as the demand from the local community has risen so much, Tony chose to diversify his operation to sell mostly to private individuals and local restaurants and cafes. Now he offers a frequent doorstep delivery service of recently laid eggs to people living in East Devon. Sometimes ‘hours-old’ eggs are delivered.
Mondays and Tuesdays seem to be particularly crazy days for Tony’s doorstep deliveries, whilst on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays he transports his colourful brown cart, sporting the name ‘Fowler’s Free-Range Eggs’, to a well-established pitch at Honiton street market, which has recently re-opened.
The cart has had a recent facelift, of which Tony commented: “The stall has had a revamp during lockdown and it now looks like a chicken shed on wheels.”
His daughters Caitlin and Megan often help on the stall, where the eggs and homemade cakes, jams and pickled onions made by Tony’s wife Helen, are also sold.
In addition to the market stall, there is a small on-site farm shop that has seen increased footfall over the last few weeks.
But the bulk of the business is the door to door delivery service to households, something that has proven to be exceptionally popular recently. Tony explained: “Deliveries have been going extremely well. We have seen a little bit of a drop-off in the last few weeks, but we are still selling every single egg. Normally we would only sell a third of our stock”.
People can order the eggs directly from the farm via its website.
Customers who buy Tony’s eggs are assured of their freshness. He explains that eggs often bought from supermarkets can be up to nine days old when they hit the shelf, at no fault of the farmer producing them. The delay is caused by the complex shipment of the eggs to the individual supermarkets.
In total, Tony has 6000 chickens that lay around 300 eggs until they are 13 months old, when the birds are then sold on. This equates to around six eggs per hen, each week. Something that keeps Tony busy seven days a week. He jokes: “I try to get the chickens to have Sundays off, but they won’t have that!”
Chickens are renowned to have quirky personalities and one, in particular, was especially fond of Tony.
He said: “Once I had a chicken that followed me everywhere, I went! I called her Doris! Most chickens look alike so it is difficult to tell them apart, so to distinguish her from the other birds I placed a hair tie around her foot. Sure enough, the tag gave it away - it was Doris following me around.” Sadly, Doris met her fate one night after an unwelcome visit from a fox.
In general, the hens are kept until they are around 13 months old, before they are sold on. At 13 months, they are good sized birds and as they are docile creatures, they make great pets. With the recent shortage of eggs in supermarkets many people have been buying chickens to lay eggs for their own consumption.
The birds are sold in batches of five or six, usually to local families, although some come from as far as Cornwall and Bristol to buy them. The new owners of the hens know they are getting a well-bred animal that produces good quality eggs.
Tony said: “Over the last three to four weeks, we have managed to sell 3000 chickens to private customers. We sold every single bird which we are happy about as we don’t want to send them to the abattoir.”
As the sun starts to set and another long summer day draws to a close, the hens return to their shed at 10.30pm. Of this daily ritual, Tony said: “The chickens are rounded up every evening. We won’t go to bed until they are safely in the shed, as they will be vulnerable to predators such as foxes.”
In the winter the chickens get tucked away at 6pm, or when it gets dark.
It’s not always a quick process. “It’s a waiting game, when it comes to getting the chickens back in the shed. But they are more compliant when it starts to get dark, as chickens fear the dark. Generally speaking, most will follow the flock.”
Despite the longer hours, summer is Tony’s favourite time of year. He gets an immense sense of satisfaction from his job. He finished: “We like to offer the farm to fork experience and I relish delivering our fresh eggs to the local community. I also like looking after the chickens making sure that they have a good life here on the farm.”
To read up on the latest stories from the farm, visit www.facebook.com/chickenbarn24. To order eggs, see www.fowlersfreerange.co.uk