“I love the idea of legacy and continuing to make it better. When you think beyond what you’ll see happen in your lifetime and start doing stuff for future generations, everything else sort of works out.”
Over in western NSW, just outside of Brewarrina, on the rangelands, you’ll find Bokhara Plains. Owned by Graham and Kathy Finlayson, the property was profiled in a Soils for Life case study.
More recently, the Finlaysons’ daughter Harriet has returned home, to support her parents and experiment with her own pasture-raised, regenerative chook enterprise. Harriet is also a participant in our up-coming Regenerative Dialogue series,
along with eight other families who are running pasture-raised chickens as one of many soil regeneration strategies. Harriet receives quite a few calls from people in her region who are interested in chooks as a strategy for improving soil health and growing healthy food. Most people want to know ‘how her enterprise works and how she got started’.
So, late last year we sat down with Harriet to learn more about her approach to starting a chicken enterprise and her vision for the future. Read on to learn more about this inspiring young farmer – and let us know if you’d like to receive updates on our upcoming Regenerative Dialogue series on running pasture-raised chickens.
And what is your vision for your chicken enterprise?
The next experiment is to bring the chickens into paddocks after the cattle as the next step in soil regeneration. I’ve always liked the idea of us having multiple species for the same reason of restoring the soil and landscape, which in return makes them really good quality products as well. What we’ve been doing with the cattle makes them a really good product at the end, and I thought we could do the same with eggs.
The eggs weren’t something that I originally wanted to focus on, but it’s something that you can sell right away. My main goal is chicken meat. I’d like to be offering meat every month. You can’t buy organic, healthy meat in town. You just have your big corporations, that doesn’t sit right with me. The meat in in those stores comes from some pretty horrendous places, so if I can get people to buy our birds instead, that is a small win in my mind.
I’d love for this enterprise to be bigger. I’d love the café and Chinese restaurant in town to buy purely from us. I want to be the main meat supplier for the town. That has been the goal from the beginning.
And then obviously I’ve got big dreams, so I’d like to then sell into Bourke, and then Walgett and then slowly expand out, and sell into Dubbo as well. I’ll focus on this area. I don’t have any interest in selling to Sydney. I know a lot of people there have interest in this food, but its defeats my values selling there, as they should be supporting a lot of good places near these cities.
Is there a local butcher? Or would you want to do your own?
I would love to have a proper set-up here. At the moment, we process them all here, and being small scale, we don’t have to worry about any regulations just yet. But when it gets bigger, I’d like to have a mini abattoir here because I like the idea of seeing their whole life right here. I like the idea of the chickens not having to leave, with zero travel involved.
I’ve been to a couple of poultry farms in Tassie who have turned old shipping containers in to pop-up butchering stations. We have a shipping container, so I’d like to put in an aircon at one end, and have a proper set up when we get to that scale. But right now, it’s all by hand in very small batches. And mom and dad help me with that. We take it quite seriously, and I like that. That’s really important to me.
What do you mean?
Their butchering day is their one bad day, and I don’t think lightly of that. It’s a big deal to me that the day all goes really smoothly and that we make it quite…I don’t know if sacred is the right word, but that is how I feel about it.
We really respect everything that has gone into that animal, and everything that they have done. I remember my Grandma telling me that to have a roast chicken when she was younger was a special occasion. And I like that meat from places like ours can encourage people to really think about the full life of the chicken.
By being a small town it was first by word of mouth. All of my customers in the beginning were all friends and family.
But I’ve really been trying to focus on our social media since I’ve moved home because you can reach a lot of people with it. People can really see and follow the story. I am really big on people knowing where their food comes from and really knowing a lot about the place. I love that about social media.
The chickens are spending every day doing as much chicken things as they possibly can. While I’ve been teaching myself everything about this, I’ve watched so many videos, and for some of the chickens that get hatched in factory farms, from the moment they come out of the egg there isn’t anything normal about their life.
Some of them don’t get any sunshine. But on our farm, from day one I have them out there, catching flies from day one. Social media is mainly how I sell, and it’s to the point where I need more chickens!
"I find that people in town are quite proud of it too, they love seeing the stories of the chickens, and they are like, ‘yah, that’s where my chickens come from’. And it has a ripple effect."
For right now, I enjoy delivering the eggs to people’s doors and talking to them. I deliver on a weekly basis. I only have 30 chickens in the caravan at the moment.
I have 8 people that I deliver a dozen eggs to weekly, and they pay me a monthly subscription. They pay $40 a month and get eggs delivered the same day each week. Its $10 a dozen.
Being a small town where you can buy caged eggs at $3 I thought I’ll start it at $6. But the people buying them told me I should charge more. I know that they are worth more, but I was really surprised it wasn’t just one person, but several people saying I should charge $10.
The eggs are a completely different product, because they are not just buying eggs that are better for them, but they are buying the story and they are supporting what I do with the chickens.
People pick up the eggs and the first thing they say are, “The eggs are heavy!”
One of my breeds, the Spangled Hamburgs, lay a small white egg and they’re the same weight as corporate eggs, yet they’re half the size. Initially I didn’t put the eggs in the cartons, because I don’t want people to think they’re getting ripped off. And then I just explained to customers, ‘Look, I have different breeds and eggs if you want to try them.’ And every person that’s tried it has said, ‘I’m amazed when you crack that egg, it’s the same size as the other. How does all that egg fit in there?’ It’s just because the eggs are dense. And very nutrient dense.
A lot of the eggs you buy in the grocery store are from commercial breeds whose purpose is to lay an egg, which means that everything in their body goes into that egg.
So, you get a large egg but a lot of the time, it’s not very nutrient dense because of their diet and the environment that they’re in.
Our eggs are variable in size, depending on the breed and how old the chicken is. But I don’t see that as a problem because the eggs, even if they are small, they’re all heavy. We’ve weighed larger eggs from the shop and our smaller eggs. And the shop eggs are like 40 grams or 50 grams. And our smaller eggs are twice that. Some get up to 60 grams, and I had egg once that was 80 grams.
"So, it's not about the size, it's the quality of the product."
Right now I’m working on making it profitable. Obviously, we are getting a reward from it because of the effect it has on the soil biology and you are producing a really good product and that is rewarding. But, I think it is important to make it profitable at some point so I can continue to do it. I am paying for the grain, the egg cartons and labelling, but it doesn’t require a lot of money. But, I’ve also got to pay myself – it’s a lot of chicken checking. I was thinking about training my cousin and having a little egg assistant at some point.
Dad’s always been good with reminding me to make sure I know the costing and covering that. So I’ll take that advice on board as it grows. For now the income is definitely covering the costs at the size it is.
I think starting small and slowly is really important, because if I did buy 100 chicks at once, I would have had a lot of problems really quickly. I think it is a blessing in disguise that I’ve had to do it through the mail in Covid, because I’ve slowly learned things about chickens while I have a few of them, and then I add to them.
And that’s the same with in the caravan and figuring out how to best organise it. We now have 44-gallon drums that hold their grain, and there is another one with water. And I only have to fill that up every one or two weeks.
The chickens are pretty resilient. We haven’t had a lot of problems with them yet. A lot of the problems come from the birds being somewhere they shouldn’t for a long time, whereas I am moving them all the time, where they can eat fresh food on a fresh place, and then move them along. If you have them in an environment that suits a chicken, you don’t get problems with them fighting because they have plenty of space. I see people de-beak them, and it’s not because chickens attack each other, it’s because they aren’t happy with where they are.
If you are doing everything to make them happy, you won’t have a lot of those problems. We have the same philosophy with our cows.
And are chickens able to find the nutrition that they need?
Yep, and that’s a big part of it as well. They have a wide variety of things they eat. The chickens eat and graze everything. They eat a lot of insects and mice. They have a high protein diet.
I don’t understand why people buy vegetarian chicken feed, obviously that’s a big marketing thing, but the chickens eat lots of bugs. They turn into little T-Rex’s when they find a mouse. I’ve seen chickens play tug-of-war with one, they get very excited.
And so you don’t have to feed them as much grain?
Yes, the 44-gallon tub will last two weeks. When I first started getting into the chickens, many books said, make sure your chickens always have access to grain, and make sure its full.
And then I came across this podcast called the Pastured Poultry Podcast. I became a little addicted to it. I had mom and dad listening to it on car trips. They say that when chickens rely on grain, they avoid doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is foraging. Instead, this podcast suggests to let the grain run out.
So I started doing that, and now the chickens are excited to go out and forage, and they will do that all day. They will come inside and peck the grain now and then, but I mainly see them out picking at grasses and herbs. A mix of food sources is good.
For those are unfamiliar, chicken don’t have teeth, and so they need grit in their gizzard to break up nutrients. Do you add grit in their feed?
I know the different paddocks that I put them in quite well, so I know if they are in an area that is more sandy that they might be lacking grit, but they are only ever in each place for a day or two, so they will get grit at some point in the week. We have such a mixture of pastures, I don’t have to put any grit in.
And how do you monitor them for health?
I see the chooks everyday, and that is the same with our cows. And you notice something straightaway from seeing them daily.
I have had a couple chickens with sore feet, but I select certain heritage breeds because they are more sturdy and resilient, as they are not bred for commercial use. If I am going to have a smaller flock with the heritage breeds, I can avoid the problems of the conventional chickens.
"I see the chooks everyday, and that is the same with our cows. And you notice something straightaway from seeing them daily."
What breeds to you have?
Mainly Wyandottes, australorps, silver spangled Hamburg’s, araucanas, and a breed I am just starting are the Creamed Legbars. They are known to be good foragers. They are not a good back-yard bird because they will destroy a garden, but that is what I want, a garden-destroying chicken in the paddock! So, I always look for breeds described as ‘active forager, really alert’. And I look for breeds that minimise what I have to do for them.
I’ll keep experimenting too as I am pretty open to seeing what works best with different breeds. The Creamed Legbars are supposed to be really good in the heat, so, that would be a chicken that suits here in summer.
When I get this big incubator for 200 chickens, I’ll be trying a whole bunch of different breeds to see how they grow out differently. If you’re hatching chickens from chickens that have been here for a while, they’re going to suit here as well.
My goal would to be hatch all my own eggs here, because they’re organic. There’s a lot of places that if you buy chicks or even buy fertile eggs, all their feed’s medicated and it’s full of all different nasty things, so I like the idea of them being completely organic and from here if I hatch my own.
And what’s your design of the inside of the caravan? I love that you fitted it out for these gorgeous chickens.
We just gutted the caravan, including the walls, so, it’s just the tin shell. And then on the back wall we have two long, staggered plywood nest boxes, because the chooks like to be enclosed in something where they lay their egg.
And then we have those two 44-gallon drums, one full of grain and one full of water. And then a couple of logs tied up for fun because the chickens like sitting and swinging on them. They love playing, so, you’ve got to have something for them to play with.
The chooks are only in there overnight. I go out at sunset and shut the door at this stage, but I am looking at getting a little automatic door that I can set to close at sunset and then open before sunrise so they can go out themselves, but I would still be going out there to check them.
I’d love to get one of those livestock guardian dogs, Maremmas, and then the chooks could be out there without me worrying too much. But because I like moving them every couple of days that there’s no need for that yet.
Even though you’ve just started rotating the chickens, have you noticed any changes in the soil?
They do have a pretty cool effect on the soil. They’re digging up the hard, tough surface of the soil. I think the chickens like the cattle dung when it’s a little bit dry so they can really scratch it up. And then they’re also nutrient cycling by pooping in the soil and adding lot of nitrogen. After it rains, the ground cover is more green.
In the caravan, we have mesh on the sides so when I clean out their nest boxes, I can take all their mulch, which is mixed with their poop as well.
put it onto the ground and sweep it around. So, the mulch I leave behind as well would help, particularly on areas that are a bit more bare.
Down the track, I’d like to make my own mulch from plants here, so the whole mantra is ‘from here, going back into here’. I love the idea of zero waste, and that’s same when it comes to processing the birds for meat. I use everything as possible, all the feathers and everything goes back into our compost, which goes back out onto the land as well. Basically, anything we can use, I want to find a reason to use it.
Have any of your customers wanted to come out and see the operations or the chickens?
Yes. Something that we’re very passionate about is complete transparency between food and where it’s grown and the consumer. So, I always say to people, “Yes, come see the caravan.”
And I’d love to put on a day every now and then where we do a breakfast or a barbecue in the evening around the fire and where people can come out, enjoy ‘just being’ where their food came from.
I love for people to have a look because I’m very proud of everything about this operation. I think that’s really important.
"There's absolutely nothing to hide. I want people to come out and say, ‘I am so glad I buy my food from here,’ and feel connected to it."
Absolutely. It can have such a transformative effect when people start questioning then where all of their other food comes from.
That’s it. There’s a lot of food on the shelf that if you google it, it’s a dead end. You can find the name of the company, but you can’t find anything but an address of where it’s packaged and distributed from. It ends there.
You should be able to buy something knowing exactly what has gone into it because it’s more than the food; its more than just the egg. It’s what the chicken ate to go into the egg. It’s what ‘what you eat’ eats that you end up taking in.
One of the most powerful things a person can do is choose to buy food wisely. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the food system you want to support.
"We've all got to eat, so we're all voting, three times a day."
If there were other young farmers or anyone really, who had more questions about regenerative agriculture or just wanted to get started in some way, do you have any advice for them?
I think visiting places would be the biggest thing. I learn the most when I go to a place and just actually meet the people and talk to them and see it. That’s what my parents have done. They’ve just visited people and talked to a lot of people and done that for 27 years.
I’ve taken some really good courses, with a lot of paradigm shifting. That’s what a lot of the agriculture industry needs, is a huge mind shift from what they’re focused on now to before.
And then building and relying on some sort of networking group, that would provide enough support, if you have the right people.