laterite ridge • small farm free range eggs
place // two hours east of perth, west australia
colour // olive green
sound // the hum of chickens buuuarrrk-ing
word // inquisitive
Local and state governments have agreed that "free range" means 10,000 chickens per hectare. The CSIRO wouldn't agree that one bird per square meter is really ranging free, and suggests that 1,500 chickens per hectare is "free range".
Keeping that in mind, I visited Mat, 149km east of Perth, outside a small town called York. It's a beautiful time of year to head out east, with yellow canola fields blooming and spring flowers popping up beside the red dusty roads. I studied the map hard the night before, and pin pointed exactly where I thought I'd find this modest farm, then woke up at the crack of dawn to make it in time to feed the chickens.
Mat's farm, which started as nothing more than a bush block, is now home to pigs, cows, chickens, and a beautiful spray-free veggie patch. There's a simple homestead which houses up to ten volunteers at a time - these volunteers and travellers form the backbone of Mat's operations out at Laterite Ridge. The farm often resembles a "youth hostel", according to Mat, who seems to enjoy the company and cultures that circle through his remote part of the country.
Mat raises truly free range birds. He tells you that there's less than 500 chickens per hectare, because really that's about as far as they roam, but if you want to get technical it's actually more like less than 100. They're split between a few shelters, mainly to tell the difference in ages and monitor laying numbers, though I did witness a few birds cross the great divide between the houses, following us as we did the rounds.
As a (mostly) vegetarian for (mostly) ethical reasons, I had a slew of questions for Mat, worrying that I wouldn't like all the answers. There are harsh realities in farming - chickens naturally would lay 15 eggs a year, yet they've been bred to now lay 340 (Mat's don't quite lay that may). Laying hens slow down after a few years, and are no longer sustainable for a farmer to keep - this is hard to hear, because it means that 250, 500, or 1000 birds need to leave the farm just because they're old, but Mat has successfully re-housed all of his older chickens to loving homes. So I asked Mat the hard questions, and mostly I was surprised by the answers - he really cares about these birds. Spoiler alert - I still eat his chicken's eggs.
Fun facts about chickens:
1. Chickens have a great sense of direction (why did the chicken cross the road?). If Mat moves the shelter, they'll jump over fences, run 400m across the paddock, and continue roosting in the previous location of the shelter for up to 8 weeks.
2. Chickens are super fussy eaters. Actually, they're just fussy in general. Change their food or clean out their nesting boxes and Mat will see egg production drop from 700/day to 500/day and take 4 - 6 weeks to climb back up.
3. Chickens are meat eaters (or omnivores, technically). If there's no meat in their food, they'll chase mice and eat lizards or bugs.
4. Free range (meat) chickens are expensive for a good reason. Mat originally set out to farm free range chickens for human consumption, until he did the math and realised that he was subsidising a $15 meat chicken "to the tune of about $5 a bird". Thank a free range organic farmer next time you see one, because chances are they're working ridiculously hard to put ethical meat on your plate.
5. Chickens are really funny. I was constantly laughing at how the chickens would react to us. They would gather around and peck your legs, for no other reason other than checking you out and...well, fun? We'd pull up in a car or open four wheeler and within seconds the birds would flock onto the bonnet and balance on the windscreen wipers. They'd jump onto the seats and sit on the steering wheels. They are so inquisitive - anything new they want to see, touch, peck and poop on.
I could have spent so much longer at Laterite Ridge farm. The chickens have such quirky personalities and there was still so much to learn and explore. (I only briefly got to meet the sheep who thinks he's a pig, and didn't have time to say hello to the cows!) There's a good reason, though, why Mat's free range eggs are in such high demand, and I appreciate that he is so thoughtful about his expansion plans, ensuring that the chickens and their health and wellbeing are always the priority.
There is so much more I can say, but instead of listening to me, take a listen to Mat and learn about Laterite Ridge Free Range farm.
Visit the Subi Farmers Market on a Saturday (bright and early!) to buy some of Mat's free range eggs.