Farm of the week: Hard work key to success for eggman with a niche

In 1996, Ian Taylor had to persuade the Prince's Trust to bend its rules a bit to help him build his first big hen house.

At the beginning of this year, he moved into a fine new house of his own, The Roost, with his girlfriend, Rita, and her two boys. He has a mortgage on it but paid a good bit upfront too. Ian Taylor Free Range Eggs is a success story.

One of the secrets of that success is, of course, hard work, amounting to about 80 hours a week. In between looking after the hens and delivering their eggs to Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Harrogate, Wetherby, Ripon, Knaresborough, Boroughbridge, Selby, Tadcaster, Easingwold and York, the 33-year-old entrepreneur works for his tenancy on Hambleton View Farm, Burton Leonard, between Knaresborough and Ripon.

His uncles, Derek and Nigel Taylor, run cattle, sheep and pigs there, on 40 acres owned and 160 rented, and he built his business and eventually his house on their land.

The other thing he did right was to carve his own niche rather than supplying the big packers for the supermarkets.

He delivers to farm shops, independent grocers and butchers, corner shops and roundsmen, whose customers do not mind paying a few pennies extra if they think they get something for it.

His farmgate prices go up to 1.70 a dozen for hand-selected extra large. And pennies make all the difference when you are selling eight thousand dozens a week. He has 5,000 layers in two sheds and three neighbours running 18,000 more to his rules.

In return for the pennies, he offers a product which can genuinely be called local, for 30 miles around, as well as free-range and premium quality.

The key to all that has been keeping his flocks relatively small. 'Free range' is on its way to being the new mainstream and some big producers are running into scepticism that their birds are really much better off than their caged cousins. But they have fought each other's margins down to the point where there is no escape from intensivity.

Ian says: "Because I am a relatively small and local supplier, my eggs are in the shops within two to four days of being laid.

"A big operation might easily lose five to seven. People like a good yolk colour and I can afford that bit extra on feed to make sure they get it.

"And when it comes to cleaning out a shed for a change of stock – strip it out, wash, disinfect, rebuild – I am happy to take a month, which gives the shed time to rest properly. An intensive producer would need it all done in a day.

"I started off going for the quality end of the market because it meant I could afford to do things a bit better than average.

"Now I stay away from the supermarkets because my customers want to be offering something different."

A big egg-stamping fraud, which was wrapped up with prison sentences recently, has added to the value of a trustworthy name on the welfare guarantee.

"The bureaucracy is a pain sometimes," says Ian. "It's a bit like airport security treating you as if you probably are a terrorist. But there is no doubt the inspectors are on the case and I suppose I should be glad about that."

His father, John, grew up at Hambleton View Farm but left to work independently. Ian grew up in Bishop Monkton but loved the family farm and always wanted a place there.

At the age of five, he was given a few hens and got hooked on the magic of eggs. By the time he left St Aidan's School, Harrogate, at 16, he was serving customers around his home village from a bike with a pannier.

He worked for an egg farmer and for a dairy farmer while studying animal husbandry at Askham Bryan, then he negotiated a takeover of a Leeds egg round and saw a possible future for himself.

He was buying in some eggs, from caged birds, and considered setting up his own cage system. But the future of cages was already uncertain. He roughed out a design for a barn and then decided he could go all the way to 'free range' for the cost of a couple of holes in the wall.

The full definition is a bit more rigorous but roughly speaking, free range simply means the birds have the option of going out. In practice, they only take it for an hour or two most days.

Because of their ancestry, Ian supposes, they are terrified of predators from the sky.

"Helicopters always start a riot," he observes. And the local red kites get more reaction than they deserve. He has never seen one take a hen. Foxes are more of a problem and he will sit up and shoot one, 10 or 12 times a year.

"A caged bird might not be unhappy, because it doesn't know any different," he says. "But having gone this way, I wouldn't go back. I wouldn't like to live in a cage."

He was 20 when the Prince's Trust launched his business with a grant of 1,500 and a nil per cent loan of 5,000.

He borrowed some more from the bank and with telegraph poles, corrugated iron, plywood, and help from his uncles, he put up a shed and spent 7,500 on 3,000 birds.

It cost another 7,000 a year later to automate the egg collection.

Since then, he has added another shed, for 2,000 birds, and installed a second-hand grading and packing set-up for 50,000 which would cost 200,000 new.

That has been the key to continued independence. He employs one full-time hand and part-time packers by the hour.

Until recently, most of his hens were Bovan Browns. But he has just taken his second batch of a white bird called the Dekalb Amberlink, having been impressed with the first.

They were slow to get to the point where their eggs were the right size but once there, they kept producing, and he was sorry to see them go when they were scheduled for replacement.

"You pay 3.50 for point-of-lay birds at 16-17 weeks. They peak at 28-30 weeks. Then the aim is to keep production as high as you can until 72 weeks. And it is only in the last six to eight weeks that you start to make a profit," he sums up.

"But these white birds were nowhere near spent at 72 weeks. I might take the new batch to 76 weeks."

Ian Taylor Eggs are

sold at about a hundred outlets, including the showcase Fodder shop at the Yorkshire Showground at Harrogate. See www.freerangeeggs.org