Ken and Kylie White were keen to diversify on their rural property just outside the small town of Dunedoo 325kms north-west of Sydney but it’s quite probable none of their family or friends thought they would become passionate about hens.
The couple (pictured with their son Charlie) were, and still are, Hereford breeders on their 900ha property “Tanah Merah” but they realised that producing eggs would be less impacted by drought than their other agricultural activities.
“We were wholly and solely a cattle operation but we wanted to diversify without any great capital expenditure. When we had the opportunity to acquire an existing egg production business, we grabbed it,” says Ken.
He and Kylie purchased Farmer Brown’s Pastured Eggs from founders Tony and Margot Wentworth Brown of Snake Gully Dunedoo last August.
The Farmer Brown’s Eggs were selling like the proverbial hot cakes through Sydney epicurean landmark store, Accoutrement.
“The couple that started the business were selling the eggs through Accoutrement as well as in several outlets in the Blue Mountains and in Mudgee. It was a thriving business but we’ve expanded distribution slightly, selling through several more outlets in Sydney, including Feather & Bone and a couple of bistros,” Ken told OnFood.
Kylie and Ken have about a thousand laying hens currently. The breed is Isa Brown – “most of the chooks the big egg producers have are hybrid varieties that are voracious layers,” Ken says.
He describes the business as exceptionally labour intensive.
“We spend a couple of hours every afternoon collecting the eggs and processing them which means cleaning them and packing them into the coolroom.
“The reason these pastured eggs are expensive on the shelf is because the work can only be done manually. For example, you can’t wet the eggs so they are ‘dry cleaned.’ If the eggs are visibly clean, we don’t need to clean them further so a lot just need to be checked for cracks and then packaged,” he explains.
He says the constant nature of the work is the major difference for he and Kylie in terms of lifestyle – “you have to be there every day to feed and water the hens and collect the eggs.”
The hens are watched over by three Italian Maremma guard dogs. These dogs were traditionally bred to guard sheep but will bond with any creature they are introduced to at an early enough age.
Kylie told OnFood the new venture had proved to be reasonably plain sailing thus far. “We raise our chickens from one day old and that has proved to be a little bit of a challenge because of our climate – it’s very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer,” she says.
She says an American farmer, lecturer and author, Joel Salatin, had pioneered the raising of chickens in mobile sheds which is what she and Ken are doing on Tanah Merah.
“He raises livestock using holistic methods of animal husbandry on his farm in Virginia. He’s all for producing food locally and consuming it locally so he’s a bit of a guru,” she told OnFood.
There is a huge demand for the eggs in Sydney. “We’ve got a waiting list of outlets wanting the pastured eggs but we can’t increase distribution right at the moment,” Kylie says.
Ken says that when he took on the business, they both thought it would be quite an original venture.
“But we have found quite a number of people doing the same thing – running about 300 to 1000 chooks, usually husband and wife teams, and the reason is there’s very strong demand for pastured eggs.
“While the eggs are considerably different, there’s a strong animal welfare issue as well. The hens are completely free. They are never locked up, day or night, and people like that idea,” Ken says.
“We don’t market our eggs as free range and that’s where the waters become a bit murky. We can’t feed the world with this sort of egg production – there aren’t enough people to do it – so there will always be some sort of factory farming. The bigger retailers can use the term free range but free range can mean 50,000 hens running on one hectare and it would be so unpleasant because one hectare becomes a mud bath. At the moment, the law says I think that 20,000 hens can run on a hectare and that’s outrageous.
“The people doing what we’re doing have cottoned onto the Joel Salatin term, pastured. About 50 per cent of the pastured hen’s diet would be grass and bugs and they have a supplement of grain. And the nutrients are eight times higher than a cage egg so the health benefits are terrific,” Ken says.