On a former grazing property in Dundonnell, about a four hour drive west of Melbourne, 5,500 chickens are pecking the ground beside their purpose-built caravans. It's a new approach to free-range farming.
“The caravan concept is the birds are free to come and go as they like inside the van,” Caravan Eggs manager Kate Warner said.
“They have perch rails and nesting boxes … and they can hop in there any time and lay their eggs.”
“We try to move them around twice a week depending on the weather,” Kate’s mother Jill Warner added.
Jill Warner and husband Robert, a fourth-generation farmer, own and run Jaskro Park, a 1,700 hectare beef, lamb and cropping operation.
Mum Jill and daughter Kate, a former emergency nurse, handle Caravan Eggs on 30 hectares of the property.
They are among 860 egg farmers in Australia, with revenue growth forecast to rise steadily over the next five years, as consumer demand shifts towards free-range and organic eggs, according to IbisWorld.
The Warners sustainable farming system relies on towing the caravans across the property, which also helps to fertilise the volcanic soil keeping the grass emerald green and healthy.
The Warners started the business in 2016, with the aim of producing better free-range eggs.
“The difference between Caravan Eggs and other barn laid or cage eggs is the creaminess of the yolks. They have a stronger flavor,” Kate Warner explained.
Their output has grown to 28,000 eggs a week. The business now supplies grocers, restaurants and cafes from Warrnambool across to Geelong and into Melbourne.
“They are boutique grocers that we sell to. People who’re interested in the story of where the food is produced, and the ethics behind the production of that food,” Kate Warner added.
The seven caravans each house several thousand birds and, while they are free to roam, being social creatures the birds huddle together in the field while Maremma dogs watch on.
“The dogs don’t require any training. They do it by instinct and traditionally they were [bred as] Italian sheep dogs, and so at a young age they will bond with other animals,” Jill Warner explained.
“They protect [the chickens] from eagles in the day and foxes at night, monitoring the boundary like security.”
The business has also brought the family closer together.
“When everyone is here and we have six in the team, we can sort 3,000 eggs a hour,” Jill Warner explained in the packing shed.
The grading machine shines a light on each egg, so the Warners can spot any cracks or imperfections.
“They get stamped with a code and that’s traced back to our farm and then they get weighed on a counter weight system and then get packaged up ready to go out to shops or cafes.”
“I am extremely proud as a family that we’ve built this business from 450 chooks to 5,500 in less than four years,” Jill Warner explained.
“Moving into ethical farming is about sustainability, and it feels right for us and we are proud of what we produce.”
“I like to use caravan eggs because they are local suppliers, and the eggs are beautiful eggs with yellow yolks and the chooks are happy chooks living in a natural environment,” said Karen Blomquist owner of Elephant Bridge Hotel.
“We prefer to use free range [produce] wherever possible, as it goes with the whole aspect of what we are doing here with our business.”
Other local producers joined the Warners in Koroit, for a night of networking and to hear from Dan Hunter owner of Brae restaurant at Birregurra near Geelong.
Brae was listed among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017.
As well as growing its own organic vegetables, Brae actively sources form local producers
“There’s no better way to get people excited about your produce than get it celebrated in a restaurant like ours,”Dan Hunter explained.
Brae also employs local workers, which supports the regional community.
"Last financial year alone we injected one-point-seven million dollars into the local economy through payroll," Dan Hunter explained.
The ‘Changing Places Through Food’ talk was part of a new local events program, a year-round partnership between Business Victoria and metro and regional governments.
“Events like this are incredibly important’ Warrnambool Mayor Tony Herbert said.
“These events aim to develop and deliver engaging and helpful business learning, networking and upskilling events to Victoria’s small businesses.”
Local Events prioritises business skills training for newly arrived migrants, refugees, unemployed people, people with disabilities, women, Aboriginal businesses and businesses located in regional Victoria. For more information contact www.business.vic.gov.au