Making changes when the time is right

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Detchant Farm has gone through several changes over the years from beef rearing, arable farming before latterly adding free-range eggs.

The third generation traditional tenancy is run by Robert Jackson who has the insight to alter the direction of the business if the need arises.

Robert, his wife Brenda and eldest daughter Catherine Armstrong are all partners in the family business.

Robert, who has four daughters, was born into a family of farmers and says that farming was more of a natural progression for him, rather than a conscious decision. “My grandfather was a farmer, my father was a farmer and I just loved the farm,” says Robert.

Jackson family 1

He is one of five brothers, two of which are also farmers in separate businesses. And although his father has now retired Mr Jackson says: “Like most farmers we never actually retire.”

Following a DEFRA appraisal in 2004, the idea of a free-range egg enterprise came up, partly as a way of using an area of marginal cropping land.

While his youngest daughter Christine was studying at Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), by chance she met the son of one of Scotland’s leading eggs producers. Robert Chapman of Farmlay Eggs, offered to train her in free-range egg production for six months, which gave her a grasp of the industry.

And Catherine who has an agricultural degree in business management, spent time travelling the country with Robert to do their research.

“We felt that there was a market because there aren’t many other solely free-range egg producers in Northumberland,” says Catherine.

Jackson family 2

Part of the continuing success at Detchant Farm is the working relationships the family have established with each other. An important part of this is to sit down on a daily basis to talk about issues at the farm. “We are the perfect partnership really. If anybody has got a problem it’s discussed by all of us,” says Robert.

Although the family make important decisions together, ultimately it’s his eldest daughter Catherine who is responsible for finance and cash flow monitoring. “It’s important for everybody to realise we have budgets and we have got to stick to them,” she says.

While Robert still actively manages the farm his daughters are responsible for Sunny Hill Eggs.

At the beginning, plans for a 16,000 free-range unit at a nearby farm caused public outcry, so the sisters decided set up the shed at Detchant Farm instead.

The first birds arrived on the farm during summer 2005. They went into a 16,000 bird house split into two sections, with the next batch arriving the following year.

Jackson family 3

They began production with packing contracts in 2005 but by the following year, the business had already grown rapidly and in the summer of 2006, the sisters started retailing some of their own eggs under the brand “Sunny Hill Farm Free range Eggs,” says Christine who runs the retail operation.

The sisters were soon supplying eggs to 10 local Asda stores and they now market the eggs directly to restaurants, deli’s and caterers.

As the eggs business began to grow the family decided to cease rearing and fattening cattle and put all the focus into the poultry farm.

Combining the various talents and skills from each family member helps the development of the business.

“We all have something to give to the business in our own individual way,” says Brenda, who has run a seasonal B&B at the farm for the past 33 years. “I enjoy it, I get to meet different people and it helps keep everything ticking along,” she says.

They have also been fortunate enough to surround themselves with loyal staff who have continued working at the farm. Catherine joined the farm nine years ago at the same time as their foreman Michael Metcalf. “Both of them have been a fantastic help to me,” says Robert.

Jackson family 4

Christine returned to Northumberland after completing her studies, starting at the farm in 2005 and her poultry man Marec arrived in the UK from Poland to work at the farm the following year.

The family have also taken advice from professional consultants. Christine says: “We have worked with people that we can trust and who can guide us in the right direction.”

But with the family all working closely together, sometimes it can be hard for them to separate their jobs from their private lives. Trying not to talk about work when the rest of the family are over for Sunday lunch is hard, says Catherine.

Both girls no longer live at the farm but Catherine says: “At times it can get a bit intense especially as we are so busy. But if there is a problem we have become good at sorting it out quickly.”

And when Robert and Brenda go away on holiday they are more than happy to leave Catherine and Christine running the whole operation.

“Mum and dad are not afraid of letting us take the reins,” says Catherine.

Christine also says: “It can take time to gain respect within the industry and sometimes as females working in a predominately male industry it can be a bit harder but otherwise it’s not problem.”

Christine, who became a Nuffield Scholar in 2007, was just 21 when she joined the farm and found the increased responsibility challenging at such a young age: “Trying to find a balance between my work and personal life was tough but it’s getting easier now.”

And Catherine, who is married to local farmer Neil Armstrong, has two children Charlotte and Fraser and consequently has to juggle work around childcare.

However, the sisters help each other out when the need arises and manage to keep the business running smoothly. “We work together very well which helps,” says Christine.

The egg unit has 32,000 laying birds and in 2007 they decided to add to this with a new 6000 organic shed.

Further expansion plans are going ahead this year with another 16,000 free-range poultry shed being built on the same land that caused objections from the public at the start. It seems that everybody has come round to the idea of locally sourced eggs.

However, this will be the last shed to be built for the time being, as they are concentrating on expanding the retail side of the business and will soon be packing their own eggs.

August will see Sunny Hill Eggs merge with Oxenrig Eggs. Christine says: “We will take on their customers and their brand and the majority of what we produce here at Sunny Hill, we will retail ourselves, with our own grading station.”

Robert adds: “The poultry business has been a big investment and a huge leap of faith, but we are glad we went into egg production, it suits this farm very well. It’s taken the imagination of the girls to get close to the consumer.

“For my wife and myself, it’s a continuation of the business we have run for years. And for Catherine and Christine they have the opportunity to create a good livelihood.”

It seems Robert’s vision to change the direction of the business combined with gradually handing down responsibility to his daughters, has been a proven success. Since moving the business to free-range eggs, turnover has gone up four times and profitability has doubled.

“One of the hardest things in agriculture today is passing down a business from one generation to another smoothly without harming that business, and as things stand today, we seem to have achieved that,” says Robert.

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