By the time you decided to get out of bed this morning, chicken farmer Kelly Eaton will have already been up to let out more than 600 chickens from her mobile coops and collected almost 450 eggs. That’s even before she’s had her first sip of coffee, and you’ve had your second.
Her partner, Simon Carroll, is crouched down beside a section of electric poultry netting, trying to sew in a few new connections to get it working. Beside him stands Kelly, and behind them both, spaced apart at least 10 metres or more, are a series of small A-frame chicken sheds.
“There’s no way we could ever do that way of farming,” Eaton says.
“I’ve got nothing against big sheds and that type of farming but it’s just not our thing.”
Carroll and Eaton own and manage a place they call Little Hill Farm – a gently rolling 83 acres of land in the foothills of the Watagans at Mount Vincent. They are first-generation chicken farmers who also raise a few lambs, a bit of beef and grow some veggies – mostly to eat themselves.
“I’ve had chooks all my life,” Carroll says.
“When we moved here we knew we needed to do something we could manage ourselves, direct market ourselves, cut out the middleman and maximise our profits, so that we could eventually do this full-time.”
Inspired, in-part, by American farmer Joel Salatin and his mobile chicken coups, the couple built a series of homely-looking chicken sheds to keep and raise free-range chickens for meat and eggs. The idea behind the roving sheds is as much about the health and happiness of the chickens as it is about the health and sustainability of the environment they farm in.
“We do soil grazing,” Carroll says. “We try to encourage grass growth, which we do by rotating the animals around the property fairly quickly so that they’re always getting fresh ground to live on. Our chickens aren’t back on to the same patch of ground for at least 12 months or more.”
As the chickens move from patch to patch around the property they not only get new earth to scratch and scrounge around in – amplifying the fundamental essence that makes chickens, well, chickens – they also spread their manure across the ground which, in turn, encourages an increase in soil fertility. This allows healthier grass to grow back each and every season.
It’s a novel and progressive method of pasture farming, far removed from the sometimes caged and often clustered and condensed chook sheds of many conventional chicken farms.
“The chooks love it,” Carroll says. “They get plenty of space and nice clean ground every few days so they’ll go out foraging, lay in the sun and have a dust bath, which means they’re getting away from that build-up of manure.”
Breeding healthy chickens not only has a positive impact on the chickens themselves, plus the environment they’re raised in, they also happen to make for a tastier piece of protein at mealtime. Hunter Valley culinary heavy-hitters Robert Molines, Troy Rhoades-Brown, Emerson Rodriguez and Frank Fawkner all regularly use Little Hill Farm’s chickens and eggs for their menus.
“We’re so lucky to be situated where we are, so close to the chefs of the Hunter. They’re so supportive of what we do,” Eaton says.
“I don’t think we’d have had the business if it wasn’t for them in the early days. They put up with all our inconsistencies while we were still learning how to do all this properly, and just didn’t complain,” Carroll adds.
In the past two years, Little Hill Farm has been declared the state winner of delicious produce awards. Word spread. Nanna Kerr’s, Margan, Restaurant Mason and even chef Cory Campbell from Barangaroo House now write Little Hill Farm’s chickens onto their menus.
Chef and butcher Michael Robinson sells Eaton and Carroll’s poultry products at Branxton Quality Meats.
“I never thought in a million years that we’d have our produce sold where it is now,” Carroll says.
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