EMMA Brown of Korumburra’s Glorious Googies is so passionate about producing real ‘free range’ eggs and the welfare of her ‘girls’, that she took her concerns to Canberra recently.
She was there as part of a Choice campaign to get agreement that a maximum 1500 hens per hectare be adopted as the standard for egg producers wishing to achieve ‘free range’ status.
The alternative of 10,000 chickens to the hectare, being considered by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Consumer Affairs Ministers attending the Consumer Affairs Forum on Thursday, March 31 was “just plain ridiculous”, according to Emma.
But, you guessed it, with the big producers pushing from behind, that’s exactly what the Ministers adopted as the standard for the new free range code.
“That’s one hen per metre and you can see out here today how that would look,” said Emma indicating the 2000 chickens out grazing on her 155 acre farm north of Korumburra.
“They say the hens don’t like it outside, that they get scared and sick but you can see my beautiful girls, they love it out here.
“And they’ve got to have enough room to pick around and enjoy their own space.
“At 10,000 birds to the hectare, they turn it into a dustbowl. It’s no good for the hens, the eggs or the environment.
“It was probably a done-deal before we went up there but it isn’t over yet. We’re not going to give up.”
According to the South Yarra based Minister for Small Business and Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O’Dwyer, there’s to be another opportunity for community input:
“Animal welfare issues relating to free range eggs will be considered as part of the review of the model code for poultry by Agriculture Ministers with public consultation beginning in September 2016,” Minister O’Dwyer said.
Emma was asked by Choice to join their delegation to Canberra to speak to the MPs before the Consumer Affairs Ministers made their decision and she’s planning to have another go later in the year.
“Our local MP Russell Broadbent was terrific. He really encouraged us to get in there and make our views known about what it really means to be free range and that it’s not what the big guys say it is.
“There’s big money in it for the big guys to be able to label their eggs as free range. The consumer is prepared to pay a premium for real free range but that’s not what they are getting.
“There’s no way 10,000 hens to the hectare is free range.
“The most I would have would be 100 hens per hectare and that’s enough, especially when conditions are dry like this.
“They need to be able to get out on to some pasture and forage around. They love that.”
It was exactly for that reason, not being able to get real free range eggs, that Emma gave up a job as a nurse and started out with 200 chickens of her own three years ago.
Now there are 2000 ISA Brown hens, living out of seven or eight converted caravans in the hills above Korumburra, and a more healthy, happy group of hens you’d never hope to see.
They produce big, beautiful, brown eggs for a number markets including Coal Creek Farmers Market and Warragul Farmers Market, while also supplying several retail outlets in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, including Fountain Gate Fruit and Vegetable Market.
“The taste of the eggs is so much better. It’s like honey in that way. You get different tastes depending on where they are produced.”
In fact, nearly all of Emma’s eggs are committed and there are plans to expand to 3000 hens in the near future.
“It might sound silly to say it, but you really do get to know them. They’re more intelligent than people give them credit for. I recently saw one chicken showing another one how to get over a gate.
“We have them divided into seven or eight groups; the Grapes, Apples, Pears, Plums, Peaches, the Chocolates and a few others.
“There’s no problem with foxes because of our three Maremmas (guardian dogs); Solomon, Sunya and Mopsy and we also have electric fences. We don’t even need to close their doors at night.”
The hens go into the caravans when they feel like laying an egg and that’s where they are gathered for packing.
“It’s a big job producing, packing, transporting, marketing and selling the eggs yourself but that’s what you should get when you buy free range.”
Although Emma is a nurse by profession, she was raised on a farm and attended the Dookie Agricultural College at one stage. The two experiences work perfectly together for the welfare of the hens and there’s plenty of help from husband Aaron and sons Samuel 9 and Alexander 4.
But 10,000 per hectare free range – no way.
“We’ll keep up the pressure. It’s got to change.”
The voluntary code of 1500 hens to the hectare was developed by the CSIRO but it wasn’t the standard adopted by the Ministers recently.
Minister O’Dwyer said the new standard adopted last month was a start and would certainty for farmers to encourage innovation and investment in the industry.
“Currently there is no single national definition of free range eggs. The new information standard for free range eggs will require hens to have meaningful and regular access to the outdoors, with outdoor stocking of no more than one hen per square metre (maximum 10,000 hens per hectare).
“Farmers of free range eggs will also be required to prominently disclose their outdoor stocking density of their hens, allowing consumers to easily choose their preference.
“Ministers agreed to the standard following an extensive consultation process which began in October 2015 with nearly 10,000 consumers, farmers, retailers and advocacy groups providing input.”
She said a further assessment of welfare issues would follow later in the year.
THE proposals considered by the Consumer Affairs Ministers were as follows:
1. Status quo, under which free range egg labelling is addressed by the Australian Consumer Law, a voluntary “model code” for poultry welfare, state and territory laws, and industry initiatives, plus the development of additional ACCC guidance for producers
2. Free range is defined as “meaningful access” to the outdoor range, with maximum stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare
3. Free range is defined as “meaningful access” to the outdoor range, with maximum stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare, plus carton labelling identifying the stocking density at the farm the eggs are from
4. A standard with option 2 as the definition for free range and an additional category called “open range” which would set a maximum stocking density of 1,500 hens per hectare.