Getting a step on the farming ladder is far from easy and has become virtually impossible for some, with huge barriers when it comes to affording land and receiving any kind of government support.

It can be a massive gamble entering agriculture, but with hard graft, ambition and determination, there are many new starts that have gone on to establish profitable businesses by putting new ideas in place.

New entrant farmer, Gordon Whiteford, is a prime example of this, having been brought up on a dairy farm in south Ayrshire until the age of 10, before moving to St Andrews and then onto Inverness, to allow his dad to pursue an alternative career.

Although Gordon was strongly discouraged from entering agriculture as a career, he left school at 16 and headed back to Ayrshire to study at SAC Auchincruive. After studying, he returned home again to Ardersier, near Inverness, and was offered a job on a mixed organic dairy farm where he had previously worked after school and throughout his studies.

This allowed him to get the experience he needed and raise capital for future opportunities. “I have always been passionate about the agricultural industry and took a particular interest in the poultry sector after listening to an inspiring talk at college from Sir John Campbell, of Glenrath Farms,” said Gordon, who now runs Highland Eggs.

“Despite having no poultry experience, I had a strong desire to farm in my own right and saw an opportunity in producing organic eggs. In 2005, I went on to secure a contract with Glenrath Farms and although it was hard going at the beginning, that is what got me off the starting blocks.”

Sourcing capital was tough for Gordon establishing a new business and he didn’t qualify for any agricultural grants, so he took out a personal loan. He did receive a grant from the local enterprise organisation after initially being refused the first time round and this went towards financing 3000 Lohmann birds and renting a 3ha field where he could build up a mobile, organic poultry unit.

By 2008, the bird numbers were doubled and Gordon started an egg run in 2010, supplying local farm shops and the hospitality sector. In 2012, there was a real turning point for Gordon and his wife, June, when they secured a 50ha Crown Estate tenancy at Lower Mill of Tynet, near Buckie, enabling the expansion of egg production to 12,000 birds.

The couple, along with their young family of Alexander (4) and Struan (9 months), have now set up home on the Morayshire unit and have converted the entire farm to organic. They employ one full-time member of staff and June works part-time as a consultant at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

“We secured a 100ha neighbouring unit in 2018 which has given us bigger fields and more buildings, so we no longer have the field at Ardersier but we do continue to go up north delivering eggs,” said Gordon. “Regenerative agriculture has really ticked the boxes for me as inputs are reduced and farming becomes more sustainable.”

In 2014, Gordon was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship and did eight weeks of travelling over two years, visiting a number of farms in Europe, America, South Africa and Kenya. On the back of this, Gordon purchased his first flock of white birds in 2016 and converted them from free-range to organic last year.

The white egg layers are achieving 413 eggs per hen housed over a 67-week laying cycle, which is really suiting Gordon as these type eggs are a big hit with customers.

Over the last few years, the couple reinvested any profits to grow scale and efficiency, and have funded a new packing shed and grader, as well as a cattle and sheep enterprise which includes 40 Holsteins.

They are self-sufficient when it comes to producing feed for the livestock, with cattle fed home-grown silage and forage, and an inter-cropping mix of oats, barley and peas grown to feed through the robot.

The hens are also fed home-grown wheat/peas which are milled but most of the grain is bought in, with around 12 tonnes purchased in each week.

Gordon added that the hen muck is a great fertiliser for their fields and without lime, has raised PH values from 5.8 to 6.3.

Half of the eggs are now packed by the team themselves and are sold either in the egg vending machine at the farm or to butchers, hotels and bakeries, with two deliveries per week to both Aberdeen and Inverness.

The first cows at Lower Mill of Tynet were gifted from Gordon to June as a wedding present and they then went on to buy and rear dairy black and white heifers in 2016, before calving 60 in 2018 and using them as multi-sucklers.

Fast forward a few years and they are now the only farmers in the region milking cows after three of the dairy farms in the area sold off their herds over the last five years. It is also the only farm in Morayshire where you can purchase milk directly off farm.

“We are currently milking 10 Holsteins once a day in the morning through a 10-year-old robot purchased from a farm in Aberdeenshire,” said Gordon, adding that they were fortunate to receive funding from a grant which helped them to buy the robot and a vending machine which was installed last May.

“The robot is being underutilised but we will, hopefully, grow into it through time. We knew there would be high infrastructure costs with a fixed milking parlour, so that’s why we decided to buy a second-hand robot."

He pointed out, however, that no excess milk is being wasted, with around half of the milk marketed through the vending machine on the farm and other milk sold in churns.

The cows are producing an average of 25 litres per day and the calves are still suckling on their mothers up until six months of age consuming an estimated 10 litres. This has helped increased growth rates in the calves of at least 1.2kg per day with no concentrate and Gordon has found that it also helps keep udders in better condition.

As well as the egg and milk vending machines in the farm shop at Lower Mill of Tynet, the couple also offers beef and lamb boxes, along with locally sourced organic vegetables and home bakes made by June.

The first sheep came to the farm in 2015 and the breeding flock now numbers 70 Lleyn ewes which are tupped to a cross-bred to produce prime lambs born in late April. Lambs are sold direct to McIntosh Donald but the couple are now confident that they could market all of their lamb through the farm shop, likewise with the few Aberdeen-Angus cattle which they finish on the farm.

“The meat boxes have been incredibly popular with customers and we actually managed to sell all cuts of beef from an Aberdeen-Angus bullock in just three days,” said Gordon. “Our boxes have been made up at £50 or £100 and we are also looking to do specific cuts for selling through the farm shop.”

Since Covid-19 hit, there have been pros and cons to the business, as egg sales have doubled through the vending machine on the farm and supplies to butchers have more than trebled since the pandemic began. However, the closure of hospitality and certain larger businesses, such as Harry Gow Bakery, has resulted in 70% fewer eggs required, but Gordon hoped that the other areas will make up for this loss.

Looking to the future, the forward-thinking duo are installing a refrigerated vending machine so have plans to sell individual cuts of home-reared beef and lamb all year round in the farm shop. They also hope to invest in a new hen shed to replace one of the second-hand sheds in a bid to be more efficient.

Gordon concluded: “Eggs are undoubtedly our biggest seller but there is certainly a growing market out there for other produce. Selling our own home-reared, or home-grown produce through a farm shop is definitely more profitable as you are always receiving the retail price from the customer.

“There are plenty opportunities for farmers out there to diversify into something different but farmers can be very critical and it takes a lot to change the mindset.”

* Lower Mill of Tynet Farm Shop is situated on the A98 between Fochabers and Buckie, and is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week.