Hatching an idea

IN a case of being at the “right place at the right time”, a backyard Glengarry agri-businesss startup has been lauded for establishing a rapidly expanding local supply chain in as little 18 months.

Taking out the 2012 Gippsland Business Awards – New Business category recently, Gippsland Free Range Eggs is supplying 500 dozen eggs to local restaurants, cafes and specialty stores every week, and is struggling to keep up with demand.

Business owner Marnie Ellis said in hindsight, it was astounding how quickly the business had grown since purchasing 30 chooks for her 10 acre farm in January 2011.

“It didn’t seem like an obvious thing to do until all of a sudden I had the eggs and thought ‘what do I do with these’,” Ms Ellis said. “When people started becoming aware that we were selling eggs, lots of questions quickly came, and once we started all of a sudden we identified this market right at our doorstep.

“At the beginning I went and visited every chef and restaurant and everyone I knew to put our free range eggs out there; everyone had said beforehand to me that they would be interested in local eggs, and true to their word, they’ve all come on board.

Ms Ellis told The Express last month, for the first time since the business started, due to a recent hen expansion, it was able to momentarily meet demand last month; however, the waiting list soon again outstripped supply. “We are at the point where we have to work out our supply 12 months in advance; we can’t tomorrow just decide that we are going to breed 400 extra chooks…”

With a 60/40 per cent split between the hospitality and retail trade/wholesale buyers, 90 per cent of eggs are sold within a 15 kilometre radius, with Ms Ellis handling the deliveries personally. “Until we came along, most restaurants had been sourcing through food delivery services, and quite often they didn’t know where they were coming from,” she said.

“We would bring one of our eggs in for comparison’s sake; they would crack them into a bowl and our eggs would sit up on a plate, while theirs would dissipate through the water – in many cases it was pretty clear the possible some eggs weren’t fresh.” With 1100 Isa brown hens kept on farm in conjunction with a neighbouring beef property in family, the chooks have become a integral cost saving part of the farm’s pasture management system.

“The first thing the chooks do is scratch up the manure and pick out the fly larvae, in doing that, while they are finding something to eat they are also spreading the manure.” Moved around the farm with electric poultry netting in pens serviced by mobile laying sheds, the chooks are relocated every 24 to 48 hours, in a system which strikes a balance between pasture damage and rejuvenation, which Ms Ellis said had led to “beautiful even pastures”.

“I can walk you across the paddock and show you exactly where they have been because there’s these big long stretches of green pasture where they have been only days earlier,” Ms Ellis said.

“We could choose to do things easier and run them in set stockings, but the whole idea was initially actually having them here to work the land, and eggs are just the by product of that; they are the bonus.”

With plans to slowly increase numbers of chickens over the next 12 months, Ms Ellis said if someone had told her she would be running a successful local business in such a short time, she would have told them “no way”. “It’s absolutely fabulous, and it doesn’t feel like work; it’s a way of life for us and the family,” she said.