“The programme kick started our expansion, enabling us to develop a brand that sits comfortably alongside the farm business.”
An overview from the Farmer Network:
As a past Cumbria YFC Chair it is quite fitting that Henry Knowles first heard about the programme through a YFC meeting, where Adam Day from the Farmer network was highlighting the programme benefits.
A small family farm often struggles to keep the next generation working at home, providing a living for all members of the family. Diversification or new income streams make a difference – as was the case for Henry Knowles – now a winner of the Northern Farmer of the Year Award. Henry works on his Dads farm and rents land from the farm business for the ducks, giving him and his fiancé Hannah a business they can run with complete autonomy.
The pair have built their growing duck egg business – taking it to another level with the help of the Farmer Network’s business support programme. They have great commercial sense, finding ways to keep costs down, really understanding their margins and making great use of existing farm assets for the fledgling duck egg business.
They seek out advice, put in a lot of graft and are totally dedicated to making it work. It takes more than a cold frosty morning to dampen their enthusiasm for ducks.
Here’s what Henry and Hannah had to say:
In the beginning: Henry gave Hannah seven Khaki Campbell ducks for her 18th birthday present. He enjoyed keeping them when he was a youngster, but this way he thought he wouldn’t have to do anything to look after them!
As a hobby, Hannah grew the flock to 12 then joked “wouldn’t it be nice to have demand that almost exceeds supply”. They expanded duck numbers to 50 and in 2014, launched the Docker Duck Egg Company, supplying eggs to Henry’s Mum for baking and selling spares from the door.
How the programme helped:
“We’ve a new enterprise that sits well alongside the family farm.”
Explore enterprise course – the business basics: Even though we both did some business planning at uni, we got quite a lot out of the basic business bookkeeping sessions - it was all very practical and useful.
Business Advisors: Nancy Tweddell was our advisor and she was great. Nancy’s practical focus helped with cash flow forecasting - and when it came to applying for the loan, she knew just what was needed in the preparation to help us through, and she had great business service contacts too. It meant we could spend more time focusing on the bits we do well.
The Will It Work Grant: We needed to be distinctive and ready for market, so the grant helped us develop our branding and packaging - it’s a real confidence boost to have your own brand and customers like it.
The mentoring: We have some great contacts in the poultry industry that we have been able to call on – and we have a mentor through the programme who has free range hens and is also a family friend which is even better. There is no accredited standard for duck eggs, but we like to follow the Lion Code used on freerange hen eggs as closely as possible – it gives us an edge with customers.
The Loan: When Business Advisor Nancy Tweddle first visited, we were being very inventive with our housing and troughs – we had a few ducks in a pig hull and used the pig troughs for feed.
The loan allowed us to move our farming ambitions forward – we developed a grading and packing station and created a purpose built shed for the ducks. Then we increased our flock size quite dramatically.
We’re still inventive today – using sheep troughs in the new building, but we have a bespoke platform that the girls love, and they have easy access to the field and stream which is perfect.
Henry and Hannah’s journey:
There aren’t many duck egg companies in Cumbria and demand for Docker Duck Eggs was growing so they began to consider expansion.
At a Grayrigg YFC meeting, Adam Day from the Farmer Network, was talking about the business support programme designed to help young people grow their farming ambitions – and it was an opportunity that Henry and Hannah jumped on straight away. It was a real turning point.
They attended three workshops, applied for a grant to design packaging, worked with a business advisor to apply for a loan, pitching in a Dragon’s Den style interview and securing the loan in 2017.
The couple used the money to build a state-of-the-art shed for their ducks, which, until then, had lived in a pig hull. The funding also allowed them to create a grading and packing shed – and using their innovative skills, they bought an old Asda container, kitting it out for grading and packing – it saved them thousands of pounds.
Expanding their flock, they now have plenty of room to expand and economies of scale that make the business more efficient.
Docker Duck Eggs can be found in independent retailers like Cranston’s Food Hall, Low Sizergh Barn, Plumgarths Farm Shop and Beetham Nurseries. Customers love the fact that duck eggs are larger, have thicker shells and a rich flavour – therefore, the list of new customers continues to grow with farm shops and restaurants across Cumbria and further afield via wholesalers.
”This is our year – we’ve spent three years investing in equipment and now we’re hoping to be able to start earning a living.”
Overcoming obstacles: When you have generations on one small farm, you need to find a way to generate more income – and to do it with enough economies of scale to make it viable. When starting out on such a small scale, the costs are high. Henry and Hannah were inventive – finding ways to keep costs down, and now, with a growing volume, their unit costs are more manageable.
The other issue is remaining focused. Duck eggs are part of the farming portfolio, Henry has 150 mule and Texel cross ewes, and there’s a milking herd too.
What advice would we give to new entrants?
- The business workshops helped us be a lot more ready and helped us go further - faster
- Focus on what you do well and don’t get distracted
- Use the grant to develop your training or marketing
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it and never give up trying
- Be prepared to put in the hard graft because it can take over your life