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by Eilidh MacPherson
Thirty-one year old James MacLean, of Hutton Hall Barns, Berwickshire, could give all the applicants on BBC 2’s The Apprentice programme, hosted by Sir Alan Sugar, a run for their money!
James, who established his Organic Free Range Egg enterprise – Border Eggs – in March 2007 with 3000 Lohmann Brown laying hens and tripled his numbers last year to 9000, is upping poultry production once more. In July a further 12000 free range hens will take up residence – at Hutton Hall Barns – in the new state of the art shed, which has its founds going down as we go to press.
“The returns from arable farming were pretty poor, so I started looking at other options. Worm farming was one briefly pondered. But egg production seemed to offer a fairly good return, year round income and wasn’t weather dependant,” explained James, who was initially galvanised by hearing a poultry speaker at the local discussion group in the winter of 2004/2005.
He spent the best part of two years visiting about 30 sites and researching, the different sheds, equipment and options before choosing a Newquip mobile unit measuring 80m by 8m, installed with Big Dutchman equipment, which included all feeders, drinkers and nest boxes as well as a conveyor system to simplify egg collection. This shed is physically shifted on skids after 14 months to clean it out ready for the next batch of 3000 birds. “The newer sheds are cleaned out by a flick of a button once a week into a trailer,” he informed.
The second shed installed at Hutton Hall Barns was a multi-tier, 100m by 8m building with a capacity for 6000 birds. It has a centrally positioned packing station and feed bins. In July, when the third shed – a similar design to the last – is complete it will be filled with 12000 birds. The walls, which are polystyrene composite panel insulation, are topped with a ‘waterproof duvet’ roof to provide the envirnoment required for egg production. Fans at either end provide ventilation.
James runs an all in, all out policy, as he reckons it is better to have birds of all the same age on one site. In each hen house a conveyor system transports the eggs to the packinghouse, where James or one of his part time staff physically grade them for four outlets. The lion's share of Border Eggs head to Fife to Noble Foods. Outsize eggs are sold at farmers markets or at the road end, odd coloured ones are bought by local catering outlets while misshapen ones go for liquid egg.
Noble Foods provide plastic trays that interlock like Lego, for transit and collect Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
A pallet carries 540 dozen or 6480 eggs, which are then sized and lazered in Thornton, Fife. James can check his grades on the Internet a couple of days after pick up and receives a weekly payment, which was one of the main reasons that he chose Noble Foods. They also provide a superb back up and he feels that they have enabled Border Eggs to grow.
Time out is one thing, which James no longer has in abundance, but for the past two years he has made the effort to attend the Cereal Killers group, part of Planning to Succeed, run by Matthew Curry of Smiths Gore. This group of like- minded young farmers, meet periodically to compare notes, bench mark and learn from on farm and wider industry visits.
This year James is one of 60 delegates from across the country attending the Rural Leadership Course, also facilitated by Smiths Gore. The South group, which has attendees from Berwickshire to Stranraer, and meets for 14 days between January and June, recently joined forces with the Central area and travelled to Westminster and Brussels as part of a fact-finding mission.
“The Rural Leadership course and Cereal Killers group have helped Border Eggs no end: to focus where the business is going, meet people, have a good look how other businesses are run, networking and confidence boosting.”
Mission statements and company aims are displayed on a white board in the packing room, which is the nerve centre, of this ambitious young entrepreneur’s poultry venture. Not afraid to admit he is driven by money, James looks up to John Campbell OBE, Glenrath and what he has achieved in his lifetime and anyone else who has started from scratch.
James has been on a steep learning curve, cutting his teeth on the original 3000 birds and gradually increasing production as his skills and confidence have grown. He is on the BFRPA committee to learn as much as he can. James has honed his skills in negotiation dramatically and is finding that as his business blossoms it is easier to drive a hard bargain and strike a good deal.
As to the future, James will probably expand again, but with the IPPC limiting 40000 birds to a site, he thinks it would be more challenging to go above that threshold and incur a lot more red tape. In the meantime, with 12000 extra chickens arriving, young Mr MacLean will have more birds (of the feathered kind) to cope with than he could ever have dreamed of.
Quite the reverse from Sir Alan Sugar – “You’re Fired!” – James will now be looking at increasing staffing levels, with one full time position for egg production and a part timer on the arable front. “You’re hired!”
Any apprentice working with James will undoubtedly learn a lot and have plenty fun, as his wicked sense of humour shines through.
Farmers: James MacLean
Farming: Hutton Hall Barns, owned
Location: Paxton, Berwickshire
Area: 450 acres
Stock: 9000 Organic, Free Range Lohmann Brown hens
upping to 21000 in June
Crops: Winter wheat – 110 acres
Winter barley – 70 acres
Oilseed Rape – 70 acres
Spring barley – 70 acres
30 acres rented for potatoes
Labour: James and 2 part time staff