The Reckoning

Jonathan: Today’s been grey and sodden – the first rain for a fortnight, and after the strong sunshine, and brisk dry winds of last week, we’ve really needed every drop.  So, it’s been a day for indoor work!  This morning Denise and I worked together on a turnaround at Carrick, but this afternoon Denise has mostly been spinning – and I’ve been finishing our partnership accounts for last financial year – The reckoning up of profit and loss … and taxes due!

Cille Bhrighde, Uibhist a Deas 2004Normally we get this done by the end of April, as we hate having these things hanging over us, but a week or so ago I discovered that the information required by HMRC has changed since last year, and so I’ve had to work through all the accounts restructuring them so as to deliver the information in the format now required. I’ve just one more thing to do: print off the paperwork ready for posting … and get it checked by Denise. She’s a merciless proof-reader and checker-in-chief – my legs shake uncontrollably and I burst into tears at the mere thought of her finger jabbing accusingly at a double-space between words!

It’s good to have the reckoning-up settled – and paid for. We’re not ones to delay everything to the last-minute – least of all payment – we want to know just where we stand.  Unfortunately, it seems that where we stand is not the bed of roses others might suppose.  Those who know us well know how hard we work – they say we never stop! But though our profits in total are enough to get by, they’re the equivalent of a couple both working a 40 hr week on minimum wage.   (In fact we probably work about 60-72 hrs a week each, using significant skills – though admittedly there’s no journey to work costs, no mortgage or rent, and no children at home to support.)  That’s treating all our income as earned by the sweat of our brows … there’s nothing allocated to any such thing as ‘return on investment’.  As we’ve said many a time, we’re either getting a return on our investment, or payment for our labour, but certainly not both!

But that’s just the money talking, isn’t it? And when money talks, it takes – it takes away happiness! We’re not here in Uist for money! We’re here for … ach, if you need me to tell you, you’ll never be convinced.   The way we live is not for everyone. Or even very many at all. But for now, at least, and for as long as we’ve our wits and our health, it’s enough for us. More than enough!

A trip to see our daughters in Wales and Spain would be nice, though!

Ethical Eggs?

Jonathan: Back in 2005 when we started selling our home-produced eggs, we set the price to about 5p to 10p below the price, charged by the Co-op in Daliburgh, of half-dozen of their own-brand free-range large eggs.  Ours were of mixed sizes, on average at least Large size, but much fresher, tastier and with bigger and more richly coloured eggs. It seemed a fair deal to us, and as sales were brisk it seemed our customers agreed.  Back then, our sale price was £1.75 per half-dozen, but as inflation took its toll prices rose until – a little more than a year ago – the Co-op were charging £2.03 per half-dozen.  By then we’d long since found that feed prices were going up faster than supermarket prices or inflation generally, and we were having to charge £2.00 per half-dozen.  Since then, feed prices have – short-term and seasonal fluctuations aside – continued to rise.  But it’s been impossible for us to continue to lift our prices because … well, I’ll come back to that in a moment.

In general, the larger the scale of production, and the greater the investment in machinery and know-how, the lower the cost of labour ; and if all is well, the lower the overall costs, inspite of the higher costs from the capital invested.  Thus, as the scale of the operation increases, materials become a higher proportion of the total unit cost of production – and this is even more true if the market for that commodity is very competitive, and it is difficult to differentiate one producer’s goods from those of another producer (and that’s certainly true of eggs!). Eggs? Well, they’re just eggs, aren’t they?

Our own production is driven by ideas very different to those of commercial production: intentionally low-capital, low impact, and with animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and localism as core values. Labour is not a cost – it’s just what’s left for us when all costs are paid. And as it is very difficult to get customers to see the difference between our eggs and those from the shop (even those who buy them regularly can’t seem to think of anything other than size and price, – or even just price!), there tends to be very little left for us at the end – at the end of very long working days.  So as feed costs have continued to rise and rise, we are left only with the hope that our eggs are an introduction to the other things we do (which are – thankfully – more profitable).

So back to our selling price, stuck at £2.00 per half-dozen. Stuck there because the Co-op are still selling at £2.03?  If only!  No, quite the opposite.  Out of the blue, about a year or more ago, the Co-op suddenly reduced prices by about 20p.  As a special offer, perhaps? No, permanently. Then, more recently, prices were cut again – to £1.65 per half-dozen (large, free-range, own-brand). Now they’ve been cut again to just £1.29 – and no indication that this is a short-term change in pricing.

Is this just loss-leading to get customers into the store? Or is it part of a general price war with other supermarket chains?  If so, what relevance has that got here in South Uist where there is grocery shop other than the Co-op? Or perhaps it is, heaven-forbid, an attempt to drive other local independent producer-sellers out of business?  Well, I guess that sort of thing does happen!  But who is paying the price of this policy? Is it the Co-op cross-subsidizing loss-leaders, or is the Co-op pressurizing its own suppliers to take lower prices. We know that happens with milk!   But this is the Co-op, bastion of old-fashioned ideals of social justice, co-operation and fairness in business, and flag-bearer for Fairtrade everything!

Our experience – or rather my own experience when I was ‘In Exile’ (living and working in Hertfordshire and Essex) 2009-2010 was that, no matter how much is paid for eggs from a supermarket, they are pale and tasteless. Yes, even Yummy Eggs or Happy Eggs or Woodland Eggs or whatever.  Nothing, absolutely nothing like our eggs with big dark orange yolks, packed with flavour and ‘Omegas’ from ranging freely on the land and shore of our croft.  It is so dis-heartening when someone – a visitor to the islands – comes to our door and asks for a half-dozen (they haven’t bothered to look at the price or information by the garden gate) : we ask for £2 and – without even having looked at the eggs or asked about them they retort: ” I can get them for a £1.20 at Asda”, or “My daughter has three hens and she sells them for £1”. Denise will just take the eggs back and says “Well go and by them there then!”.

Many times – with increasing frequency, I suspect! – we’ve seriously considered just giving up on eggs for sale ; but quickly we recall that it is often the case that someone comes into the garden just for eggs, but ends up spending much more on other things we do ; or we remember how valuable the soiled straw and manure from the hen-houses are for maintaining garden fertility ; or how our famous lemon curd depends on our own home-produced eggs ; or that keeping hens just to supply our own household with eggs would be even more uneconomical – we’d just end up buying eggs from the supermarket like everyone else.

So … we’re fighting back!  No, not on price – we can’t possibly do it. And as for quality – well, there’s always room for improvement, but we’re already producing the quality that most customers – if not alas enough customers – come back time and again for. No, we’re going to fight back in terms of communicating with customers, establishing a clear difference between what we produce and the run-of-the-mill commercial alternative.  The only place we can do that is in the spaces we control: our websites, of course, and face-to-face with customers ; but above all at the garden gate.  And at the garden gate, that starts with the simple sign that says ‘Eggs’.  One line of thinking says we need a brand name, a name that customers will remember, and it’s got to be simple and make the point.  Well, there’s no scientific answer to this, all we can do is hope for inspiration, but all we could think of was Yolkels. (Or should that be Yolkals – as in Yolkal Food for Yolkal People” !)   But no, that’s not really our style … and in any event we’re not trying to establish a brand in a competitive marketplace, we just want to convey to folk at the garden gate that our eggs are something to look forward to!  So, maybe a compromise between the Eggsisting sign – and the Yolkels ?


New season Hebridean

Denise: I heard the front door open, and went to investigate, and found the door still ajar and a big cardboard box on the floor of the front porch, with 1 of 2 marked on the side in thick felt pen. I didn’t need to wait for Roddy the Post to come back with the second and to take away my signature to know what this was – I’ve been expecting it for some weeks. Our 2015 Hebridean lambswool back from spinning! Excited but nervous (we never know for sure how all that care and effort will work out!), I called Jonathan and we set about unpacking and checking it.

The whole point about selecting out the very best raw wool – the softest and finest and most uniformly gorgeously dark of all that year’s clip – is of course to get the very best finished yarn ; but when sending away to a micro-mill for spinning, we have to put our very best materials in the hands of others to exercise their own skill and judgement.  It’s quite wrong to think of yarn spun in a micro-mill as ‘mass-produced’ or machine-spun: it is a work of collaboration between craftspeople each specializing in the different stages of turning raw wool into yarn.

Anyway, back to the wool coming out of those cardboard boxes : absolutely gorgeous indeed.  The additional care, effort and money this lambswool (shearling) wool has cost is fully justified ; and certainly our customers think so, because despite the price (necessarily) being 20% higher, it still sells out all too soon!

Here below is the new lambswool on the right. The other two balls are made with equal careful selection for quality, but taken from sheep of all ages, and that’s what accounts for the ‘heathered’ colouring, compared to the purer dark brown-black of the lambswool.

Hebridean Wools from the Hebridean Woolshed, Isle of South Uist: Aran, DK, Lambswool DK

Hebridean Millspun 50g balls : Aran (3-play), DK (2-play), Lambswool DK (2-ply)

Visit the Hebridean Woolshed for more information and to buy online!

Moving House

Denise: The most recent batch of Buff Orpington chicks we incubated have now ‘feathered up’ nicely, and are big enough for moving house to join the adults here in the walled garden. J scooped them up out of the hen ark where they’ve been ‘grown on’ for the past few weeks, and passed them to me in handfuls of three to take over to the new hen-house in the south-east corner of the garden.  He snatched this picture of the last handful: and they certainly were on a handful, as the next photo J took [not in this slide-show!] you could see a swear-word taking shape on my lips as the three of them made a bid for freedom in three different directions!

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Pickle arrived to get involved in anyway she could – she really does think she’s human, you know!

Frühlings Müdigkeit

Cnoc a Deas, Isle of South UistJonathan: It’s Thursday morning now, and looking to be a fourth day of all-day sunshine with daytime temperatures reaching the low 20s °C !!!  Solar PV: three days in a row generating more than 30kWh, and peak output over 3.9kW (from a 4kW system). That’s a first!  The solar thermal system, too is working in overdrive – both here at An Garradh Mor and at Carrick.  And yet just a fortnight ago we had snow on Eisebhal and I was still sawing up fuel for the wood-burning stove! The sudden change in the weather is difficult to take.  During the mid 1990s we lived in Bavaria, where very cold dry winters would linger on into March, and then suddenly give way to dazzlingly bright spring sunshine, the heat rapidly building up, and driving up the humidity. The rapid change was more than the body can easily cope with, resulting in a condition known there as Frühlings Müdigkeit – an acute lethargy bordering on heat exhaustion. The offices where we worked in Würzburg were air-conditioned, which was great, but when the spring heat struck our routine lunchtime walks were suspened until we’d acclimatised – and that’d take several weeks. During that time I’d prefer to work late so I could take the Straβenbahn home to Ochsenfurt in the ‘cool’ of the evening!  Well, we seem to have brought Frühlings Müdigkeit back to the UK with us, because this similarly abrupt change in the weather really is too much for me, and yesterday after trying to get some work done in the walled garden I just had to give in and take a long afternoon nap!  Denise is most unsympathetic – she just loves sun and heat!