Drover - Doug Hope
Monday, December 10, 2012
Doug Hope is a man of many stories. He began droving around the NSW Western Districts in 1946 and has farmed the area for almost 50 years. He has driven stock through droughts (both rabbit and weather-induced), floods and endless 40 degree days, and can recount every trip and every season.
These days Doug lives in a cottage in the centre of Condobolin. The whole town seems to know and love him, and when One Farm Day visited last week he rose to greet us wearing perfectly polished riding boots, a work shirt, jeans and battered hat. A stock whip was hanging by the door and books of clippings, stories and collected letters were set by the easy chair, waiting to be displayed as each story unfolded.
Doug has worked through conditions most of us couldn’t imagine; yet he says he’d do it all again and speaks of those days with the greatest of affection. Perhaps Banjo Paterson was right when he wrote, “the drovers life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.”
Doug's first droving job was in the summer of 1946 when he joined a small crew charged with bringing 2500 ewes from Goodooga near the Queensland border to a property in the Hillston area. In those days paddocks were measured in square miles and drovers could be on the road for up to five months at a time. Often the only fresh food they’d enjoy would be meat butchered as they travelled and occasional refreshments offered by generous station wives as they passed.
“It wasn’t easy getting started back then,” Doug says, “in the late 40‘s Condobolin had up to 15 drovers and I was still getting my ‘plant’ together”.
But it took just one big gig to establish a name and then he was off. Literally. That was in 1948, “I took 2500 woolly wethers from Bourke to Kimaculla that February, it was a hot and tough job that one. Some days we'd go up to 25 kilometres between water sources”.
Doug delivered the stock on time and in good condition, and after that was approached with steady job offers. Soon enough he had more than he could handle - this was around the time of the terrible rabbit drought that struck after WW11.
During the late forties and early fifties the Western District of NSW suffered from a unique set of circumstances; a run of boom seasons meant lots of feed growth but in the wake of WW11 there was a lack of labour to run the farms and shortage of wire netting. All of this combined to create a rabbit plague that ate out the entire region leaving barely a blade of grass behind. It wasn’t until the early fifties that the situation eased off and this was thanks to the introduction of the virus myxomatosis by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
During the rabbit plague, Doug and his crew moved stock all over NSW and into Queensland in search of grass. Many farmers had their animals out on the state’s network of Travelling Stock Routes’ (TSRs) for months at a time and Doug recalls a big job in 1952 which had him, his crew and a mob of sheep on the road for over 18 weeks. These big jobs were made more challenging by floods which, Doug recalls, “at times turned the whole region into one big bog”.
“Those TSRs could be real bun fight in those years” he said, “you’d have to always have somebody keeping an eye on who was ahead so the mobs didn’t get mixed up”.
They were long days in the saddle, and not always through structured TSR routes. Many weeks were spent droving through open unfenced country and in these cases, drovers were required to give notice of their approach 12 hours in advance, giving farmers enough time to move their own stock out of the way. Some the farmers phoned ahead to the next property but otherwise it was a long ride to give notice. In general they would stick to the state recommendations that drovers travel their cattle 10 miles a day and sheep 6 miles a day, but as Doug says, it always depended on feed, water and the condition of the stock.
When travelling with sheep, Doug explains, you were allowed one ‘killer’ per week. Fresh meat was kept in a calico bag for a day or two and the rest was thrown into a sack of coarse salt to preserve. There were no cool bags or eskies and as Doug says, “boy you’d need a lot of water after eating that meat”. When droving with cattle, they might catch a wild pig or goat and would often buy a sheep from property owners when passing through.
At night the crew would string up a tarp and listen to the radio. If a trough, tank or dam was nearby they’d jump in for a wash and then settle down for a supper of salted mutton, pig, goat or meat with potatoes and tinned vegetables, finished off with a cup of tea, damper and honey or jam.
These might have been the scenes Banjo Paterson dreamt of when he wrote those famous lines about his droving character Clancy, “And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars.”
Doug's team was pretty lean but effective; he rode with an offsider and a cook, up to 10 dogs and three or four horses per person. The horses were all hobbled at night with bells around their necks to ensure they could be found in the morning. And the stock themselves were generally left unfenced all night (unless yards could be found), guarded by the dogs and clumped together by their natural herding instinct.
Like most good drovers, Doug had no time for alcohol while they were out moving stock. “You need to have your wits with you when droving,” he says, “I’ve heard of fellas having a few drinks at night then waking up to find the whole mob gone”.
It was a different story as soon as the stock was handed over though. And while Doug has never been much of a drinker, the crew would often make up for his moderate ways.
“I remember camping near a pub one night after we’d handed over a mob,” Doug says, “the boys had been at the pub for a few hours drinking then came back to camp - as drunk as owls - grabbed one of our ‘killer’ sheep and threw it over the bar to pay for the night’s grog. Boy it made a mess of them that night.”
Doug’s full time droving days came to an end after marrying in August 5th, 1954. His wife was a city girl and they settled at Redloum, a property about 60 miles from Condobolin. Here they welcomed their two children, Sue and Colin and with them, worked through floods, droughts and all the other highs and lows that come with living on a farm. Doug remembers the flood year of 1956, “it was so boggy that year, we had to muster for shearing with a borrowed pushbike.”
While he still did the odd droving job, Doug’s focus now shifted to life on the farm and his family. Daughter Sue followed him in the saddle so to speak, and grew up to become an accomplished camp drafter. Photos of the young girl helping to muster sheep on what looks to be an adults' horse at the age of three (below) are testament to her early start as a rider.
Professional drovers are hard to find these days, “stock just aren’t moved that way anymore," Doug says, "and if farmers need to take their stock out ‘on the long paddock’ in search of grass, they’ll generally do it themselves".
What does this mean for the network of travelling stock routes around NSW and into Queensland? They have become recognised not only as a source of emergency feed but also for their role as corridors of refuge for natural vegetation, threatened species and native woodlands. Because many follow traditional Aboriginal travel lines, they also still provide important connections on that front too. The entire network is currently under consideration for National Heritage Listing.
Speaking with Doug, you get the impression he’d give anything to get back in the saddle and ride along those stock routes again but for now he’s happy to keep telling stories and there are plenty of people waiting to hear them.
Wool Classer - Graham Traves
Thursday, November 29, 2012
A shearing shed in full swing is a fascinating scene to observe; the pace is fast, the stakes high and there’s a constant, concentrated thrum of activity. And presiding over it all is the wool classer. He or she stands at the sorting table, receiving each fleece as it comes still warm, from the sheep, then sorts, classifies and grades it to be sold at the best possible market price.
One Farm Day recently visited a wool shed near Cargo in NSW. We were there to meet wool classer Graham Traves and found him, like the rest of the crew, sitting down and enjoying the last few minutes of ‘smoko’. It was a warm Spring afternoon and the sheep were waiting patiently outside under a cluster of peppercorn trees. The scene was quiet and calm, but once 3.30pm ticked over, the entire crew rose on cue and returned to their stations. Like clockwork.
Graham has been a wool classer for just over 40 years. He lives in Canowindra and during the shearing season (July-November), works across the region’s major sheds. So it’s fair to say that this is a man that knows and loves his wool.
“I get a kick out of seeing what the market will do next,” Graham says, “what style of wool it’s asking for and then working with the brokers and graziers to deliver just that”.
As long as the shears are going, Graham stands at the table, totally absorbed in his work. As fleece after fleece is thrown at him, Graham measures and then assesses it for quality before indicating to the shed hand, which pack it should to be pressed into. Throughout this process, the grazier or property owner hovers at his side. “This is their livelihood,” Graham says, “these blokes wait and invest over twelve months for the wool to come off so I understand they’re anxious to see how the clip shapes up.”
Most of Graham’s work is repeat business and he also works closely with a number of wool brokers. “I never get any pressure from the graziers when classing their wool,” he says, “but the brokers might sometimes suggest I concentrate on a specific area or trend which is helpful, it’s good to know where the market is going.”
Graham has decades of experience in the wool game and is keen to share his experience with newcomers, “in a good shed you’ll all work together and everyone knows what to do. Generally a crew like this is great at helping learners, we all get in there, encourage them and give suggestions”.
“But on the flip side, it only takes one bad worker to upset the whole lot, so you have to control that, just as with any other workplace.”
While the Central Tablelands isn’t traditionally considered a world class producer of fine merino wool, Graham is the region’s biggest advocate, “When I was first getting in to the wool game, I was told that Canowindra and the surrounding area was too good for merino sheep, that it was more suited to prime fat lambs and Tasmania and Golburn were the go, but when you get out and start looking around, it’s pretty clear that this area is as much suited to wool as it is to growing lambs.”
To prove his point, Graham points to the fleece that’s just been thrown like a parachute, across his sorting table, “this wool will probably end up in a high quality wool suit," he says, "most of the wool I’m are seeing here today is very fine, around 17-18 micron. It's is lovely wool,” he confirms with a nod.
In addition to his wool classing work, Graham is also heavily involved with the family’s Poll Dorset stud, and shares the work load with his three brothers, “I’m the stud and farm manager and my brothers help part-time.”
So how did a farm boy turn into a wool classer?
“I was always taken with the wool industry,” Graham says, “so shortly after finishing school, I took my wool classing certificate, and learnt the rest on the job.”
Beginning his classing career just before the wool boom of the seventies when Australia had a record 170 million sheep, Graham has seen the highs and lows of an industry that once carried Australia’s economy. He recalls the spectacular collapse of the reserve price scheme in 1991, an event that left such a large stockpile of wool that it took almost a decade to sell off. This in itself encouraged many graziers to switch to lamb production and merino numbers dropped dramatically.
But even though the reserve collapse meant tough times for the entire wool industry, Graham was no fan of that system; “with the reserve, there was no incentive for growers to be innovative, they started growing for weight rather than quality and we saw a lots of average wools coming through the market.”
“Since we lost the reserve scheme, price is now more reflective of quality so graziers are driven to innovate and grow better wool.
“Over the past decade,” Graham says, “I’ve seen very fast take up of available scientific advances. Farmers now take samples from each sheep so they can track what micron they produce. They are getting smart about how they breed their sheep and what they feed them all in order to produce exactly the kind of wool the market wants. And as a result, we are now seeing much broader, well-styled wools that are much finer than they look.”
It seems that Graham thrives among the buzz of a hard working shearing shed and he certainly recommends the career to anyone interested in pursuing agriculture from a different angle, “if you can, start your wool classing studies while still at school, then go to TAFE, get some experience as a shed hand and most importantly, do your research and follow the market trends."
Leading Hand, OAI - Rod Hicks
Monday, November 26, 2012
As the Leading Hand at the Orange Agricultural Institute (OAI) Rod Hicks has seen the effect that some of the most serious plant and animal diseases can have on farms in NSW. But on the flip-side, he also sees, and participates in the very research that contains, prevents and eradicates those very conditions.
OAI is a research facility within the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and relies on people like Rod to keep its research farm ticking along smoothly.
According to the DPI itself, the OAI's major objectives “are to improve the quality, profitability and sustainability of deciduous fruit, wool and sheep meat production, minimise the impacts of weeds in crops, pastures and natural ecosystems, reduce salinity through improved management of recharge areas, reduce the incidence of diseases in domestic livestock, and limit the effects of vertebrate pests on production and the environment.”
So on any one day Rod could be helping shear the site’s research sheep flock, harvesting a research wheat crop, fixing fences or going about general orchard maintenance.
Having grown up on an orchard in Orange, the latter is a job Rod has years of experience with. His family came out from England in the late 1890s and eventually settled in the Orange area where they established an orchard. “I suppose, growing up in that environment, and having first hand experience in farming has been helpful in my work,” he says, “but the kind of farming and biosecurity work I do now is so varied that I need to be across a whole range of agricultural industries.”
In addition to his general farm work, Rod is also a key member of the Biosecurity division’s first response team. “While most of my work is around the farm here at OAI, I also need to be ready to drop everything and help out if ever there’s a suspected outbreak”.
Over the years Rod has worked closely with the department’s first response team on everything from Horse Flu or Avian Influenza, to Myrtle Rust. During the Equine Influenza outbreak of 2007-2008, he spent eight months as site superviser for Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse. This meant that from August right through to March he was on site, containing and quarantining the entire area, spraying vehichles and ensuring no horse products came in or out.
During the NSW outbreak of Newcastle Disease in the late 90's Rod spent a number of months on the Central Coast near Mangrove Mountain. “My role there was to contain the situation, ensure the affected birds were killed humanely and that the shed was cleaned according to protocol.”
Australia has seen five outbreaks of Newcastle Disease in chickens between 1976 and 1997, and thanks to people like Rod and the DPI’s Biosecurity teams, in all cases the outbreaks were contained and eradicated within months and there was no impact on human health. And because contingency plans against possible future outbreaks are constantly being reviewed and upgraded, Rod and his team do regular training exercises and courses.
And it’s not only animal diseases Rod works on. Plant biosecurity is another major element of his and the Department’s work, so when Myrtle Rust was reported to be occurring in and around Gosford, Rod wasted no time getting to the area and spent a number of months there, visiting nurseries and testing for affected trees. Myrtle Rust is a fungus that affects native Australian trees like bottle brush, tea tree and eucalyptus. It infects the leaves of these trees and can ultimately kill them.
“This job certainly gives me something new to do and think about every day,” Rod says, “but it’s also incredibly rewarding as I know I’m participating in a practical sense, in making things better for our farmers.”
Fisherwoman and industry advocate Mary Howard
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
The expression still water runs deep is pretty perfect for a woman like Mary Howard. On the surface she is a smart, friendly and hard-working fisherwoman with a strong family focus. But dig a little deeper and and there’s a lot more going on here.
Mary is a commercial wild harvest fisherwoman on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River. With her husband Graham, they trawl for prawns up and down the river right outside their house every weekday morning during the prawn season (October through to May). The afternoon we visit, Mary and Graham are busy packing that morning’s haul into small bags which will be frozen then sold as bait. “The bait market is strongest right now,” Mary says, though at other times in the season the prawns go straight to the Sydney Fish Market too.
Some mornings they will bring back as much as 100 kilograms of prawns, others will be much lighter, as few as 25 kilograms, “but so far, this season is shaping up well,” Mary says. "Some days the prawns will be right outside the mooring, others we travel up the river for up to an hour to find them.” And how do they know where to look? “It becomes an instinct.” Mary says. The Howards have been living and fishing here for over 30 years, so by now they know the river and its prawns pretty well.
Mary grew up in Liverpool where her parents had a market garden. As a child she would help her father get their produce ready for market and spend afternoons and holidays chipping cauliflower, parsnip, lettuce and other vegetables.
After finishing school in Year 10, she worked with her family until marrying Graham and moving with him to the Georges River. Graham was working for a boat builder at Menai and was also establishing his own boat building business. Graham's boss had an order to build a fishing boat for the Hawkesbury River, he became friends with the owner and was asked to visit the Hawkesbury and go fishing with the new boat owner. “We just fell in love with the place,” Mary says, “30 years later and we still love it!”
Mary had always taken an interest in land and water management and had of course, a vested interest in the future sustainability of the fisheries industry that was her family and community’s livelihood. So fourteen years ago she decided to get involved. Really involved.
Mary enrolled in an aquaculture course with Grafton TAFE. The course was completed via correspondence and gave Mary not only a swag of excellent practical knowledge that was directly applicable to her daily fishing work but also, a set of writing and research skills that enabled her to begin producing papers on issues she was passionate about.
Since then she has authored four papers and presented them at conferences around Australia, has been a Director of the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment Management Authority, is working on a new paper and is also considering a book. On top of this Mary is the National president of the Women’s Industry Network Seafood Community (WINSC) and in this role has just organised a successful national conference in Canberra. The theme was 'Sustainable Seafood - The Challenges and Opportunities" and attendees covered adjustments to wild harvest fisheries around Australia and the impacts to families as a result of Marine parks, Aquatic reserves, Recreational Fishing only Havens and general closures to fishing grounds making commercial fishers non viable. As Mary says, "it was an extremely emotional but successful Conference." She is now preparing to attend the next one in South Australia at Port Lincoln on the 26th October 2013.
Mary has become a strong voice for Australia’s commercial fisheries and an advocate of their sustainability and development. “I have a lot to say and I want to be heard,” Mary says, “but I realised that if you are going to be heard you need to get involved. You need to be educated and reasonable, and you need to present well.”
And so, in addition to her more academic pursuits, Mary has also taken public speaking courses, completed the Australian Company Director’s Course and more recently has undertaken a course in media training. In 2010 her research and practical fisheries work awarded Mary the Sydney Fish Market’s excellence in environmental practice award.
Mary’s first paper, “Aquatic ecosystem productivity relies on water managers and sustainable cities,” was a convincing argument against the pressure placed on wild harvest fishers like Mary, Graham, their friends and family. “I thought it was time the rest of the community realised the effect they too have on our waterways,” she says, “from recreational fishing to every day water use; people just don’t understand the collective impact that all water use has on the productivity of our aquatic ecosystems.”
Mary argues that the wild harvest fishing industry in NSW is constantly being challenged yet constantly meeting those challenges. “We keep adjusting and have established that this is a sustainable industry but still “policy and the community primarily focusses on sustainability, and 'wild harvest fishers' are always the target”.”.
The commercial wild harvest fishing industry is indeed shrinking. Forty years ago there were over 6000 commercial fishermen in NSW and today they number less than 1200. As Mary says, there is no incentive at all for anybody to enter into this industry, “we see incidences of suicide at the extreme end, and across the board fishermen are discouraging their children to join the industry.”
Of Mary and Graham’s three children, one son is working as a commercial prawn fisherman and another was in the industry but has moved to another sector after an injury. Their daughter, who lives two doors up, works in real estate.
All her working life, Mary has been involved in family businesses; from helping her parents run their market garden as a child to working alongside her husband in their prawn fishery and boat building business. “Family is the driving force for everything I do,” she says. And as we walk around the garden, evidence of Mary’s commitment to her family is all around us - literally.
After taking an owner builder course this year, Mary is now renovating the house to provide more room for family gatherings. She drafted up drawings and had full plans drawn up, then, “much to the amazement of my husband, submitted them to council”. Now, with Graham’s help and the occasional contractor, she is not only running a business, researching and continuing her advocacy work but also renovating a house.
Did I mention she is just over 65 years old? “Oh yes, I’m a fair way of retiring I hope.” She says.
Mary is a seriously impressive woman. From leaving school in year 10 she has gone on to educate herself to the point that her research papers are now affecting legislation changes and all the while has worked her own family fishery, raised three children and become a strong voice for women in commercial fishing.
With yet another review of the commercial wild harvest fisheries industry due out within months, Mary is bracing for yet another round of cuts to the industry and is preparing yet another paper to argue against them. Watch this space!
Orchardist Greg Brooke-Kelly
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
To be an orchardist," says Greg Brooke-Kelly, "it helps to be tenacious and not too wrapped up in the idea of the dream harvest.”
Greg is pretty well qualified to give advice on this agricultural industry - he grew up on an orchard and for the last forty years has run his own.
“Over a 10 year period you may have one or two great seasons," he says, "five or six will be average and there might be one or two disasters. I have found that it helps not to have all your eggs in the one basket so here we grow a good mix of stone-fruit from cherries to peaches, nectarines, plums and prunes."
Greg's father Noel came to the Maimaru area just north of Young in 1957. He purchased a farm that was to become the family's home and orchard and while it did have a small prune orchard, the farm was mostly used for grazing sheep so Noel quickly added cherries, peaches and nectarines and the whole family was involved in the orchard's seasonal work load.
Twenty-five years later Greg went out on his own and purchased a small 30-acre orchard called Elsinore. It was just down the road from the family farm but destined to evolve into something quite different.
“While I grew up on a traditional, commercial orchard, I guess I always felt uncomfortable using chemicals," Greg says. "But it wasn’t until I bought Elsinore that I really started to look into organics as the way forward for me.” Being organic has enabled Greg to tap into a niche market that can handle smaller volumes of fruit and appreciates quality, especially flavour and texture
These days, Elsinore is home to over 2000 fruit trees and 25 varieties and the farm supplies fruit from November (cherries) right through to April (plums). From old-school Santa Rosa plums to red haven peaches, van and lapin cherries and the rare and fragrant white Fragar peach; this orchard is sustaining a range of rare and interesting fruit trees. “Because we are a small operation, we can farm varieties that might not suit bigger commercial orchards,” Greg says.
Visit Elsinore in spring, and the landscape is a pale patchwork of pink and white blossoms. Orchards seem to cover the entire valley.
This area just north of Young has been producing fruit on a commercial scale since the 1870s. But it wasn’t until after WWI that the orchard industry really took wings. Greg explains how the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act handed over parcels of land to discharged soldiers to start up small farms, and that many of these were designated to be fruit orchards exactly where Greg and his family is farming now.
“The climate in our region is well suited to orchards,” Greg says, “we are on the western edge of the south-west slopes so have higher rainfall zone and cold winters which are important for bud setting.”
Having seen the ups and downs of fruit growing during his childhood, Greg now runs his business with a more holisitic approach. So shortly after establishing his own orchard, Greg invested in a small commercial fruit dryer and twenty years later is still drying much of his crop.
Now Greg sells not only fresh-picked produce, but a range of preserved fruit from dried cherries coated in rich Belgian chocolate to sulphur-free peach and plum halves of bright, intense flavour and dried prunes which are sent off to become paste and then used in gourmet food products.
“Our dried fruit is different to the mass-produced alternative because it isn’t treated with any chemicals at all, and because we control the entire process ourselves, we can pick at full ripeness to give maximum flavour and quality.”
The drying side of Greg’s business means that even if the cherries split from too much rain or the fruit sustains the odd harmless blemish, he can dry them, preserve their flavour and send them off to a grateful market. “I can generally salvage something even from the most disastrous harvest,” he says.
“It’s a huge satisfaction for me seeing how many happy customers we have. People who appreciate the quality of our fruit, fresh and dry, keep coming back for more and are prepared to pay a fair price for it,” Greg says.
While the orchard work falls pretty much entirely on Greg’s shoulders, he does have a constant stream of WWOOF-ers (World wide opportunities on organic farms) come and go, particularly during harvest. “They are a huge help to me,” Greg says, “and it’s great to meet so many interesting people from around the world. I am generally a sole operator here so its nice to have company while you work!.”
With the cherry harvest set to kick off in just a couple of weeks, it’s the quiet before the storm and Greg is working on thinning the fruit out on his peach and nectarine trees and keeping the grass down. Otherwise it’s a quiet and steady road towards harvest.
So far it’s not looking too bad. There has been a bit of frost damage to the plums, peaches and nectarines but overall, Greg is optimistic for a good year. “What we don’t want right now is a hailstorm or prolonged rain event. For now it’s simply a matter of keeping your fingers crossed!”
One Farm Day at the Field Days
Monday, October 22, 2012
The One Farm Day had it's own little space at last week's Orange Field Days. We ran a drop-in writing workshop for the full three days and met some wonderful farmers along the way. Their stories are on their way here but in the meantime here is a little video of Jan Richards from Central West Libraries introducing the workshops and projects.
Todd Fergusson - Egg farmer
Monday, October 8, 2012
For Todd Fergusson there’s no doubt - the cow comes before the chicken which comes before the egg.
Todd and his wife Sara live near Dunedoo in western NSW. And while they have been running cattle here for many years, began grazing (yes grazing) chickens twelve months ago. The Fergussons are one of a few farming families in Australia producing ‘pastured’ eggs on a commercial scale. This means the chickens graze in open paddocks playing a key role in a cycle of rotational farming that results not only in a daily harvest of beautiful eggs but also richer natural pastures to feed the cattle herd.
Sold under the Farmer Brown label, “we have made a point of distancing ourselves from the label ‘free range’,” Todd says, “because some eggs that are branded as such come from chickens who are locked up, for up to 23 hours a day and aren't free to scratch for bugs and insects”. In contrast, Todd’s chickens are free to roam in an open paddock all day (and night if they like).
The Fergusson’s farm, Moreton Bay South, was never intended for chickens. It had been operating solely as a shorthorn cattle stud since 1949. And while Todd grew up here, he hadn't planned to make a career of farming. Instead he went to university in Armidale and then moved to Sydney where he worked in finance. He and Sara met at a country picnic race meeting and decided to move back to the farm when Todd’s parents retired in 2008. The couple had begun their own family and a move to the country seemed like a good idea both for professional and lifestyle reasons.
Todd became interested in rotational grazing systems and this led to the idea of bringing in chickens to naturally fertilise the paddocks and replenish the soil. Twelve months on and the egg business is breaking even but, he says, “the real profit is in our improved pastures. We don’t buy any fertiliser these days and you can really see a difference in the paddocks with richer natural pastures where the chickens have been.”
The 1200 chickens are moved about 30 metres every week and it will take almost one year for them to cover a 200-acre paddock. Divided amongst five portable sheds, the chickens are protected by maremma sheep dogs which are, Todd says, “indispensable and really quite amazing.”
“Sometimes they wander around and find each other during the day but always gravitate back to their own chickens and constantly have one eye trained on them”. As night falls the dogs herd their wards back into the portable sheds at night and of course take care of any foxes that are hanging around.
So the cattle are happy because they have improved pastures to graze, Todd is happy because he has lovely eggs to sell and lower farm input costs and their customers are happy because the eggs are something quite special. But that’s not to say that it’s not all smooth sailing.
‘The eggs are labour intensive and not hugely profitable,” Todd says, “we spend about 4-5 hours a day with the chickens, moving their ‘caravans’, checking water, then collecting eggs then grading and packing them.”
But it seems that all this work is well worth it. Diversifying into eggs has given the family a lifestyle angle to their farming that not only Todd and Sara but also their two children Fergus 7, and Alice 5, are loving. “It’s great to see the kids walking through the paddocks, checking the chickens, their water and eggs,” Todd says, “I love how involved they are from such an early age.”
The Fergusson family is now a popular fixture at the monthly Mudgee farmers market where they sell not only eggs but also bacon, egg and rocket rolls which are for many, a market essential. Other stockists include food stores in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and of course Dunedoo.
So it’s clear that Farmer Brown’s eggs come from very lucky chooks but what about the quality of the eggs themselves? Todd explains that pastured eggs can contain up to 20 times more Omega-3 than eggs from caged chickens, “but statistics aside, they honestly do taste better and even when you crack one of our eggs in a bowl you can tell they are special.”