Staff farm trip - looking the animal in the eye
At an ungodly hour on Sunday 6 June, our Feather and Bone team sailed out of the bucolic Marrickville industrial precinct - past bleary-eyed clubbers weaving their way home from factory raves and the odd over-eager, over-lycraed cycling crew - to visit three of the farms we work with in the Mudgee vicinity.
We're very keen on farm visits. They are central to our practice and our commitment to gathering knowledge and passing it on to anyone who'll listen, mostly newsletter subscribers and visiting customers who we bale up and lecture in the shop. We must have made around 100 visits over the last 15 years, seeing all sorts of farms across a range of seasons and conditions and learning about the challenges and nuances of regenerative farming in Australia.
But this is the first time we've closed the business and toured the country for two days with an entourage of 15 staff, two vans, a maroon Mustang, enough wine, whiskey, cassoulet and coq au vin to feed Napolean and his officers for a month and a camera man filming the whole thing.
It was a wonderful, action-packed two days. We learned about cow manure and Mr Bone's secret history as a stripper, we saw chickens being born and then some other chickens tried to eat the Mustang.
In good time we'll have a short film to share with you but until then, here's a brief run-down of what we did.
DAY ONE - Sunday 6 June
Gundooee Organic Wagyu
After driving five hours from Sydney, our first stop on Sunday afternoon was Gundooee Organics near Leadville where Wagyu beef farmer, Rob Lennon took us in hand. Rob is a great farmer, a dear friend who we've worked with for 14 years and, as well as raising award-winning Wagyu beef cattle, he runs a lovely farmstay called Gundooee Getaways. We've visited Gundooee and written about Rob's work many times over the years and he's a big part of the soil chapter of our book, The Ethical Omnivore.
Rob took us out into the pasture and gave us all a primer on the structure of soil, the importance of the diverse ground cover, how the health of the farm springs from healthy soil, the minutiae of good quality cow manure and the importance of genetics and diversity in the ecosystem. We watched how water runs off hardened, bare soil but melts willingly into friable, lively soil rich with microbes and fungi.
We met a mob of incredibly calm, grand and stunningly beautiful cattle and paused, sobered, as we identified the ones that are designated for Feather and Bone.
Few experiences sharpen your sense of compassion and responsibility quite like standing in a paddock and looking an animal in the eye, knowing that it will soon arrive as a carcass in your cool room. We've done this many times before but it was important for our team to have this profound experience too. Everyone should.
We were charmed and slightly intimidated by the cows' curiosity as they nestled in close, big shapes in the waning light, while we drank beers and whiskey around a small fire, watching a gorgeous sunset and the first stars appear. Eventually we headed back to Mudgee where we feasted on cassoulet, coq au vin and too much good wine and passed out. An excellent day.
DAY TWO - Monday 7 June
Grassland Poultry Sommerlad chooks & Farmer Brown Eggs
The next morning, early (if not particularly bright), we headed off to visit Grassland Poultry, near Wellington, where the Sommerlad Heritage chickens we receive every fortnight are bred, raised and killed.
Before they set up Grassland Poultry and added heritage chickens to the mix, Kim and Bryan Kiss had spent many years holistically farming cattle and sheep at their beautiful property, Meramie. Initially, the chook operation was confined to raising day-old chicks bred at the Sommerlads' farm near Tenterfield. The chooks improved the pasture and cycled well with the other animals.
But when the Sommerlads' circumstances changed, their key breeding lines were dispersed to five farms across Australia, one grower per state, and the Kisses stepped up. Grassland Poultry is the only Sommerlad chicken producer in NSW. In 2019, they also built an impressive on-farm processing facility which became operational in 2020, allowing every step, from breeding to slaughtering, to happen on the farm.
It's extremely rare for small-scale Australian poultry farmers to manage the entire life cycle on a single farm. Let alone breed serial award-winning, heritage chickens that contribute critical genetic diversity to our food system and manage the operation according to compassionate, holistic principles. This is a remarkable and important farm.
There's a lovely profile of Grassland Poultry in The Ethical Omnivore if you want to know more.
Kim and Bryan showed us the entire operation from start to finish. We saw the breeding flock (including the venerable Roger the Magnificent - he's in our book too), then the incubator, where a few eggs obligingly cracked open before our eyes and tiny chicks tumbled out, blinking in the light and perfectly illustrating the miracle of life. In the brooder, we swooned over fluffy, two to three week old chicks of all colours, just starting to grow the feathers that will keep them warm and protected for the two to three months they'll spend living outside under the protection of Maremma livestock guardian dogs.
Out on the pastures, we walked around birds of all ages bathing in the sun and dust, scratching for food, resting in the shade of large trees and logs, chasing each other, occasionally popping into their mobile shelters, climbing fallen trees and rocks, fertilising the pastures and generally demonstrating what real 'pasture-raised' and 'free range' looks like.
Lastly, we toured the spotless, A grade-licensed abattoir (not in use that day) and Kim and Bryan talked us through the slaughter process, which is almost entirely manual, keeping things as quiet and calm as possible. It's an impeccable facility and process and it's clear why the birds we receive each fortnight are of such high quality.
Last stop for the day before heading back to Sydney was Farmer Brown Eggs which is run by the Maurice brothers on their family farm, Gillinghall, near Spicers Creek, about 20 minutes on dirt back roads from Grasslands. Gillinghall is a large, established, mixed farm growing around 3,000 sheep and a range of crops, including all the grain for the egg chooks. The eggs provide an additional source of income and the chooks, moved twice a week onto fresh pasture, return the favour by improving the soil with their scratching and manure.
First Hugh and Angus showed us the sorting and packing room where we watched the magical process of egg candling (shining a light through the egg to spot any cracks) and marvelled at the egg sorting machine which is so satisfying and well-designed that the only improvement anyone's made to it in 50 years is to increase the size. Then it was off to the pastures to see the chooks.
It was very interesting to see the big flock of Isa Brown egg chickens immediately after the Sommerlad heritage meat chooks at Grasslands. Unsurprisingly, they look different but also behave quite differently too. The Sommerlad birds are visually diverse with a broad range of colours and traits and they're a little wild - they've been bred for good eating qualities but for also for vigour and resilience so they'll thrive outside. Bryan and Kim might be able to catch them but we wouldn't have much chance.
The Isa Browns, on the other hand, are bred to lay so they are much lighter bodied, a little more docile, very curious and quite happy to be picked up - which delighted everyone. (They also took a shine to Mark's Mustang and descended on it, trying to eat all the insects plastered across the front. Not happy.)
It's surprising how often you see photos of egg chooks in the media illustrating stories about meat chickens. It just shows what a thin understanding so many people have about where their food comes from. Chicken isn't just chicken.
Then it was time to head off into the sunset, back to Marrickville.
We are privileged to have THE BEST staff and it was the most wonderful trip. We had perfect weather, generous and lovely hosts, fabulous accommodation, excellent food, lots of laughs and no one vomited in the bus.
We can't wait to do it again.
Group photo at Gundooee by the fire by David Stössel. Other photos by Charlie Morgan-Evans and Mrs Feather.