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by Eilidh MacPherson
Deciding whether to convert their poultry enterprise from caged to free range is the main topic of conversation around the kitchen table at Overton farm, Fintry.
The Aitken’s of Overton, Fintry could be categorised as a ‘rare breed’ in the farming world – they are one of very few small battery hen farmers, who market all their own eggs.
With yet more new rules burgeoning the agricultural industry – all egg production has to be free range by 2012 – the Aitken’s are facing a huge dilemma. The big question – will they make the huge investment and convert their 6700 Hy-Line, 3 flock, caged operation to a free range one or opt out of the poultry sector after 37 years?
The jury is still out on this hotly debated topic at Overton, “I don’t know what we’ll talk about once we have made a decision,” exclaimed Betty who markets and delivers all the eggs to a 70 strong customer base.
At one point the Aitken’s housed 12000 birds but, “Over the years our marketing has declined, smaller shops have given up as they cannot compete with the supermarkets, others have retired,” explained Jake.
“We are cheaper delivering ourselves rather than paying someone else,” said Betty who along with her husband and son has a 6am start to pack the eggs. She is then on the road by 10.30am, five days a week, touring the countryside delivering eggs from Perth to Helensburgh and rarely home before 6pm.
“Most of our customers have been with us for years; small shops, butchers, dairies and hotels and any new ones are through word of mouth.”
The Aitken’s were first introduced to poultry when they took over a smallholding – 40 acre Adamswell Farm at Mollinsburn, Cumbernauld – 37 years ago. They inherited some birds there and built the numbers up to 12000.
In 1987 the opportunity to buy some bare land at Fintry, near Jake’s family home at Bogside arose and the Aitkens jumped at the chance. “We ran the two places alongside for five years. There was only a an old byre and a fank here initially, no fences or house.”
Over the years the family have built a farmhouse, three henhouses, the steading, and sheep yards. The poultry sheds could be adapted to house free-range birds but the innards would need to be revamped and the numbers in each shed would have to be dramatically reduced.
An egg-grading machine was purchased five years ago and has been a wonderful time saving investment. It was 30 years old when they purchased it, but has been worth its weight in gold as it pre packs the eggs and incorporates the lazer stamper.
“Special ink for food is used to stamp the date on. A cartlidge lasts about 3 months, but is expensive and adds onto the cost of a dozen eggs. Packaging also adds 12p to a dozen,” said Robert.
At Overton, there are three main enterprises, which Jake reckons are more or less on a par for income on an annual basis. “The egg money gives us cash flow year round and pays the bills while we are waiting for sale time and the SFP.”
Robert helps out with the eggs but tends to focus more on the sheep and cattle enterprises. Initially Blackface breeding stock was purchased from Blackhouse and the Glen, Innerleithen. Now only tups are bought in, from “where ever – it’s what catches your eye,” said Robert, who sold his first pricey tup – The Hassler – for £4000 to Glenrath and Burncastle in October 2000.
In 2003, Peter Dunor, who farms on the hills above the southside of Loch Ness, bid £10000 for an Overton bred tup. He was out of a £1600 Midlock sire shared with Allanfauld. Last year Robert sold one at £4500 to Balemeanach and the Pole and another to Tollashill, Hopes Estate for £4000.
Robert took up a handpiece and went shearing on his own for 3 years, then in 2001 worked for Iain MacGillivary, Wester Bowhouse, for 5 seasons, before buying the run. He employed 2 Kiwis for 3 seasons, shearing 18 000 sheep, but reckons, “in hindsight I should have just organised it as it created more work at home.”
As the poultry industry has been unsubsidised, the Aitkens were unaware that SRDP funding was now available to farmers to invest in the poultry sector or to convert from caged to free range production. This gem of information will undoubtedly raise more debate round the kitchen table.
Farmers: J&E Aitken,
Robert in partnership with
his parents – Jake & Betty
Location: Fintry, Stilingshire
Area: 349ha, owned
Stock: 6700 Hy-line hens
680 Blackface sheep
400 pure, 280 to BFL
50 suckler cows
Horses: Oldest female line in
Labour: Jake, Betty & Robert