9 May 2019

Three local egg farmers going beyond free range

| Alex Tricolas
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Where do you buy your eggs from? Perhaps it’s not something you think about that often, but as campaigns like Make Cage Eggs History gain traction, it’s probably a fair bet that anybody with a conscience is skipping the barn laid or cage egg sections and picking up the free-range options available in most supermarket chains.

If you’re still buying cage eggs, well, shame on you. But if you are a free range devotee, you may be surprised to know that free range can mean a lot of things that don’t necessarily gel with what most consumers would expect. As it stands, chickens can spend most of their time indoors or be confined to less than a square metre of space per bird, and still qualify as free range.

If you want to make sure that the eggs you are buying are ethically farmed, it may interest you to know that there are local egg farmers leading the way with farming practices that allow birds to roam free in open paddocks, and to practice normal bird behaviours in low density natural environments.

These farmers subscribe to a philosophy of ‘integrated farming’ advocated by the likes of US maverick farmer Joel Salatin. Their methods allow for multiple uses of land, for the birds to move around in open pastures, and for other livestock to graze on the natural grass grown from the regenerated soil once they move on. We catch up with three of them here.

Majura Valley Free Range Eggs
Majura Valley Free Range Eggs

Nick Weber and Annie McGrath at Majura Valley

Nick Weber and Annie McGrath took over the property at Majura Valley in 1999. In 2000 they moved their family in, and in 2010, after a change of circumstance in the business Nick had been previously involved in, they decided to do something more intensive on the farm.

They had been thinking about eggs for quite some time and doing a lot of research. “We discovered there was demand for this sort of product locally, and when you think about it, other than eggs, there aren’t many things you can do on a small farm that bring in regular income,” says Nick.

Like the other local egg producers in our region, they are subscribers to American self-proclaimed ‘lunatic farmer’ Joel Salatin’s philosophy, which rejects mechanised factory-style production in favour of small sustainable farming; a philosophy that Salatin calls ‘beyond organic’.

Nick and Annie explain that their farming practice is known generically as ‘pastured poultry’. The system far exceeds the standards set out for free range. “The key to it all is having mobile accommodation for the chooks,” says Nick. “The chooks have their sheds where they get food and water and shelter at night, and those sheds in turn move around the paddocks.”

The chooks clean up weeds and in turn fertilise the soil. “You don’t have effluent problems, the chook crap is on the paddock,” says Nick. “It’s out in the sunshine so it doesn’t smell, so we don’t get those problems that people get with fixed infrastructure.” The work they have been doing here rejuvenating the soil won Majura Valley a Landcare award in 2013.

Nick and Annie currently run a flock of 2000 birds. “One of the standards that is often quoted for free range is 10,000 birds to the hectare,” says Nick. “We are running less than 10 percent of that.” The pastured movement tends to work around 750 birds per hectare. Of course, on an industrial scale, when a farm is running 250,000 birds, it isn’t feasible, so this is very much a small farm practice.

While this type of farming may seem new or revolutionary, what is actually happening is that small farmers are taking it back to pre-1950s practices. Old practices presented a number of problems, and Nick explains that the cage egg industry came about as a response to those problems. It allowed a controlled environment with no predators or wild bird involvement to bring diseases from outside.

The free-range movement though, is really about giving the animals a more natural lifestyle, and allowing them to run around and to socialise normally. Yes, there are also claims of enhanced levels of Vitamin D and Omega 3 in good free-range eggs, but the thinking goes further than that. “You have to think about their mental well-being as well,” says Nick. “Chooks have natural behaviours. They like hunting, socialising and communicating.”

As far as what movement means for them as a whole, Nick isn’t mincing words. “People are digging their graves with their teeth in industrial agriculture. They take a cow out of a paddock and start feeding it corn, and then try and market corn-fed beef as better for you when it’s actually the opposite. I mean, even the cows don’t like eating the stuff!”

Majura Valley Free Range Eggs are currently sold directly to a number of local hospitality operators including The Press Club, Bitterweet Café, The Fat Goanna and The Front. They also wholesale to retailers Ainslie IGA and Choku Bai Jo at North Lyneham, or you can pick them up from the honesty box, a trailer stocked with fresh eggs at the front gate of the property.

Check their facebook here

Long Paddock Eggs
Long Paddock eggs

Amanda Mutton and Eileen Moriarty with their Meramma dog

About two years ago, good friends Amanda Mutton and Eileen Moriarty were talking about their pastures and how to improve them. At the time they were running cattle and Dorper sheep. They had heard about people using chickens to improve their soil through fertilisation, so they decided to buy some old caravans, and re-fit them to house chickens.

The friends decided that they would do it together, and that it would be a cooperative enterprise in order to get some economies of scale. The operation is set up on two properties, one near Bungendore and the other near Captain’s Flat. Whilst they still run cattle and sheep on their properties, the egg farming enterprise has turned into a going concern, with the Long Paddock brand growing in popularity in a very short time.

Both women are very motivated about adhering to ethical and sustainable practices. “We have the best kept chooks in the world,” says Amanda. “They are never locked up, they are kept in very large paddocks and they can run the whole paddock, they are looked after by Maremma dogs so the foxes can’t get at them.”

The paddock is vast and is surrounded with an electric fence to keep predators out. The caravans are hooked up to a tractor and moved around every second day. The country is quite hilly and undulating, but an ingenious hydraulic system allows the wheels to independently rise and fall to level the caravans out. “The closer the birds can behave to the way would if they were in the wild, the more content they are,” says Eileen.

They currently keep around 3,000 birds. The flock sizes vary from around 500 birds up to 1,300. The quaint repurposed caravans are slowly being phased out in favour of purpose built portable sheds. The new sheds have a number of features that will add to the birds’ comfort and make the farming easier. They will have the capacity to hold natural rainwater and have good ventilation and awnings for protection from the sun on hotter days.

Both women are not comfortable with the definition of free-range, as they believe that what they are doing goes beyond the current standards. “There was talk with government about reframing the definition of free-range, as it should probably reflect for the consumer what they imagine free-range to be,” says Eileen. “It looked like it was coming out last year and it didn’t happen, so the term free-range has probably been so devalued, so you’ve got to talk about it in a different way.”

She says that whilst many people are using terms like ‘pasture fed’ or ‘pasture raised’, they feel that is probably not entirely accurate either, and that they face a dilemma of being able to label something that allows the consumer to recognise that these are chooks that have unlimited access to pasture, that their feed is external and their water is external.

Long Paddock currently supply IGA, Wiffen’s at Fyshwick markets, Tom’s at Belconnen Markets, Tilly’s in Lyneham, Good Brother in Dickson, Bungendore Wood Works Gallery and Delicious in Braidwood. “We think it’s important to genuinely support the local towns,” says Eileen. “Yes, Canberra is our market, but there are farmers’ markets in smaller communities nearer to us that support us, and we feel we need to support them as well.”

Check out their facebook here

Cuppacumbalong Open Range Eggs
Bruce Gibbs Pork barrel cafe

Bruce Gibbs of Cuppacumbalong with his eggs at Pork Barrel Café

Bruce Gibbs from Cuppacumbalong says that for him, the egg business really started as a result of recycling. He was brought up in a frugal household. His parents grew up during the war years in England, at a time when nothing was wasted, and they raised him with the same ethos. As a long time hospitality operator, he always made sure to recycle restaurant waste back into compost. He found it extremely wasteful however, that the high nutrient things like breads and left over vegetables were just going into the ground when there was nothing wrong with them.

“We just started splitting it out, and turning the high nutrient waste into feed for a small flock of chickens,” he says. What started as a flock of around 25 birds has now grown to over 2000. “Everything that comes out of our kitchens now, breads, pastries, greens and vegetables that are left over all gets turned into wet mash and goes back to the chickens.” Bruce says that the amount that goes back to the farm represents many tons of waste that doesn’t go into landfill.

Bruce has had an interest in a number of restaurants over the years (at the moment, he owns The Lobby and Pork Barrel Café), so it was an obvious outcome that the farm would be able to supply eggs back to the hospitality ventures that were supplying the feed. About four years ago, the decision was made to expand the flock and to sell to more than just their own restaurants, so they started selling to the public and to other cafés.

Defining the practice is also a concern for Bruce. At Cuppacumbalong, they follow the integrated farming methods advocated by Joel Salatin, and they have chosen to call their eggs open range, purely because free-range does not adequately describe the farming practice employed. Cuppacumbalong farm at less than 350 birds to the hectare, which is way below the accepted industry standard. According to Bruce, there are free-range farmers getting away with 15,000 birds to the hectare.

Cattle and sheep are also kept on the property, and reap the benefits of following the chickens. “We move the chickens about once or twice a week, depending on the weather and the amount of rainfall. But the cows will come into the paddock about two weeks behind us, because the grass that comes out after the chickens have moved is highly fertilised and is really sweet.”

For Bruce the ethical debate runs deep. His concern for the environment is obvious, as is his concern for the welfare of animals in his care. “I don’t see any benefit in treating animals poorly,” he says. “And in the end, good treatment of animals ends up with better products. If an animal is scared when it dies, it will have tough meat. If you treat a chicken badly, it won’t lay well for you.”

So what does Bruce think is a good life for a chicken? He says the industry generally gets rid of its chickens at between 70 and 80 weeks, as after this time, the eggs lose some consistency. They lay for a little over a year, and then they are euthanased and composted. “We start giving away our chickens or selling them at about three and half to four years. We call the eggs the older birds lay ‘Quirkies’ and sell them at the markets for a cheaper price. They aren’t as good for poaching, but they are fine for baking, that’s what we use them for here. Three and a half to four years roaming pasture, and then given away as back-yarders? We think that’s a pretty good life for a chicken.”

Cuppacumbalong supply The Cupping Room, Eighty/Twenty, Farmers Daughter, selected IGA supermarkets and Superbarn in the city.

Check out their facebook here

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Hi are you close to Gordon act and can I buy direct

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