A farmer’s wife with two children, it’s fair to say Lea Darling has had a mixed career. At 16 she left school and spent time in Kent working with horses before returning home to the North East to work as a secretary at a solicitors in Darlington. Having married Robert, a farmer, at 21, and with two children before she was 30, Lea spent a number of years at home raising the children and helping out on the farm – involving herself in all aspects of the business, from tractor driving to lambing. She then absorbed herself in various secretarial roles when the children were at school. But in 2000, the Darlings moved into Burtree House Farm, a mixed arable farm that’s been in the family since 1963. As soon as they moved in, Lea and Robert took on the task of diversifying the business, which began with a Kelly Bronze turkey franchise, raising the turkeys from day-old poults to maturity for Christmas. But they soon realised that they needed something that would work all year round, so they started with selling eggs from their 100 hens to passers-by. It was at this point Lea started baking for farmers’ markets… and the rest, it seems, is history.
‘I had always enjoyed baking,’ says Lea, ‘and my puddings were always popular with the family. As we looked to streamline the items we were producing for the markets and take the business forward, we realised that there was a particular product that was not represented in the local area, and so from 2003, we have been producing sticky toffee puddings. Year on year the range has grown to include Christmas pudding and a gluten free version of both.’
As well as being partner and founder of Burtree House Farm Shop and Burtree Puddings, it’s quite clear that Lea gets stuck into every aspect of the business. From making the puddings herself in her kitchen, to taking and dispatching orders, attending consumer and trade shows, as well as developing the product, she’s at the forefront of every decision. But it is a business that the whole family is involved in, as Lea explains. ‘My husband Robert is my business partner, so he plays a large part, and while our son and daughter have full time jobs, they still help where they can along with their respective other halves. It’s most definitely a family business. It can be tough working so closely together, but I don’t think I would want it any other way. That’s how I’m able to juggle business with family life – by getting them all to help out! It’s often the only way we see everyone, especially at this time of year, and we certainly couldn’t operate without them all!’
So what exactly is it that makes Lea’s puddings so special? ‘It’s our attention to detail,’ says Lea, ‘and the careful sourcing of our ingredients means that we produce great tasting puddings. Our unique selling point is that all of our puddings are still handmade. We are also proud to say that every one of our luxury puddings has won a Great Taste award – not something that many fine food producers will be able to claim, and our sticky toffee pudding was also voted Supreme Champion.’
‘I love meeting different people and seeing local customers visit us each year to buy their Christmas puddings! It is so important for women to choose a career they enjoy doing. Your own business can be all-consuming and if you enjoy what you do it makes it much easier to bear. Women make good business people because they can juggle at least three or four things at once!’ And Lea certainly knows how to juggle. ‘It’s all about hard work. You need to work hard to succeed. The more you put into something, the more you get out.’