Working within the agricultural industry brings with it many challenges, however 21-year-old Claire Strathern is leading the charge for young people with her free-range chickens!

Kathryn Dick talked to her about her business:

You’re pretty young to be in charge of your own business, what is your background in agriculture?

I was brought up on what was originally a beef cattle farm, primarily Simmentals and some Texel sheep. However, my dad was diagnosed with farmers lung and aspergillus and was told if he didn't stop working with cattle, then he'd be in a wheelchair and an oxygen tank within a year. So, it was at that point that we decided to go down a different route and go full circle with the farm business.

How did you end up working in the egg industry?

I'd always loved chickens, so I asked for 15 hens for my 15th birthday and, much to my dad's dismay, my mum got them for me! After dad's diagnosis and selling the cattle, we went commercial with the chickens, in 2016, starting with 120 hens.

That number has grown gradually in the space of four years and currently we are sitting at 10,000 chickens which are producing 8000 eggs per day!

In February, we will be increasing that to 15,000 hens and we're currently in the process of building three new sheds. By the end of the year, I want to be sitting at 25,000 layers.

Can you tell us a bit about your job and what it entails?

I'm the manager for the business so, in short, I do everything!

One minute I could be doing the VAT or paperwork and the next I'm mucking out the chicken sheds or fixing broken machinery. I also manage the social media accounts and train any new members of staff, as well as deliver our product to customers – so the job comes with a lot of variation!

What's been the biggest investment that benefited your business? And what’s the biggest mistake?

One purchase would definitely have to be the egg grader. Originally, we used a table top grader and it took us 11 hours to grade one day's worth of eggs, whereas our new grader completes the job in 30 minutes, so it saves us a lot of time!

Another purchase would be buying high quality chicken sheds.

Our biggest mistake would be not keeping up the maintenance of the drainage systems that run underneath our sheds, as one gave up on us the other day and I had to go down into a mucky hole to fix that!

What has been the best and worst advice you have received?

The best would be to just stick to your guns. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something, or what you're doing is wrong – unless it is wrong!

If you have an idea, don't let someone put you down about it because if it wasn't for my love for chickens and persistence with this business venture, then I wouldn't have achieved what I have today.

The worst came from a feed rep' from a company we previously used. She had only just been hired and was telling us that our chickens didn't need a pre-lay diet when we knew that they did for health reasons, which was worrying as she was meant to be a poultry expert!

What's been your biggest achievement to date?

By far, my biggest achievement would be winning the John Cessford Award for 'Young Person of the Year' in the egg industry, which I'm only the second person to win at the Scottish Egg Quality Awards.

I was also runner up in the NFU Mutual and Scotland Food and Drink's 'Inspirational Young Person' competition and was commended for my work by the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association.

Do you feel pressure of managing your own business and studying at the same time – how do you overcome that?

Yes, I definitely feel pressure!! I still have six months of my course left to study but I love my job so I wouldn't have it any other way.

I've recently joined my local Young Farmers club, so even being able to go to a concert practice at night takes my mind off work!

Where do you want you and your business to be in 2030?

Hopefully, I'll still be working on the farm and we'll have a lot more members of staff by that point as I plan on expanding to around 35,000 chickens. We would also love to open up a farm shop and cafe as well.

What is the way forward for Scottish agriculture?

Definitely education. It's terrifying how little the next generation knows about where their food comes from. Some children don't know that potatoes are grown in the ground or meat comes from a dead animal.

I had a little boy as me what an egg yolk was on my last visit!

There is a real disconnect between the public and the agricultural community. We need more of the likes of Open Farm Sunday, or school trips to the local farm so that children can see exactly where food comes from.

You volunteer in schools educating children about food production and farming, what's been the most memorable question?

One high school student asked me how we manage to shove the chick inside an egg before it hatched – which I giggled at, but I left the sex education conversation to their teacher!

Does veganism/vegetarianism pose any direct threat to your business and how can you mitigate against it?

It doesn't pose a huge threat to us. We sell some of our eggs from an honesty box system on the farm, so the public can come up and take what they wish.

Due to the fact we are free range, our customers can see the chickens out in the fields and I think that's what sets us apart from other businesses – we have nothing to hide. We try to explain to our customers that, yes, the egg is a by-product of the chicken, however they are laying one every day whether it's fertilised or not.

If we didn't lift the eggs, then they would rot and attract predators so it works both ways – the chickens are happy and we can enjoy delicious free range eggs straight from the field!

Outwith farming, are you involved in any other organisations?

Again, Young Farmers is a good distraction and gets me out of the farm, otherwise I'd be here all the time! Plus you meet so many like-minded people and it's a lot of fun!

Any hobbies?

I love doing nail art! When I left school I went to study make-up artistry for TV, film and theatre and I'm a trained nail technician so since then I've done a complete U-turn in my career choice! We also enter our eggs into poultry shows and have won a few times.

Favourite alcoholic beverage?

I would have to say gin! Eden Mill do a lovely spiced rhubarb crumble gin which I stumbled across at the Highland Show and since then I've been obsessed with it!