Pecky the pet chook hitches a ride when it’s feed time for the commercial hens. The two Jack Russells ensure the foxes give the free range operation a wide berth.
Pecky the pet chook hitches a ride when it’s feed time for the commercial hens. The two Jack Russells ensure the foxes give the free range operation a wide berth. Toni Somes

Free range farmer juggles children, chooks, changes

ASK Fiona Rimmer how she became one of the region's few free range chook farmers and she confesses "it just sort of happened".

One day she and her partner Ken Kelly were finishing a chook yard on their 25ha property at Junabee; the next they were lining up to get a development application for 50-plus birds.

"Seriously that's what happened," Ms Rimmer said.

"Three years ago we'd just built a chook house and then Ken was driving home through Woodenbong and there was a free range chook farm selling their hens and he bought 50."

In the weeks that followed, everyone they knew received eggs from their farm, until supply reached overload.

Then they found themselves applying for a development application through the Southern Downs Regional Council and accreditation from Safe Food Queensland so they could start selling their produce.

"We just needed to do it properly," Ms Rimmer explained.

Today she has 1200 Isa Brown chooks, not bad for a girl who grew up on the Mornington Peninsula and was more familiar with surfing than farming.

"I always loved horses though and after school I worked in the thoroughbred industry as a groom and a strapper and then with different breeders," she said.

It was through the equine industry she met her partner Ken Kelly.

"When I met Ken he had the Riverview Hotel in Murwillumbah and later we leased the Tabulam Hotel in Tabulam," she said.

We were too small to supply some of the larger supermarkets so we had to find different markets and it was a hard slog.

"Hotels helped us pay for the horses.

"But eventually we decided to invest in some land and get out of hospitality."

Ken was originally from Meandarra in the south-west, but knew the Southern Downs as quality horse country and less expensive acreage for horses than land along the coast.

So the couple shifted to Junabee a decade ago, buying a 25ha block east of Warwick in the Junabee region.

Initially they just had brood mares as part of a small breeding program, until they ventured into chooks three years ago.

Today they operate a small-scale but successful free range operation supplying eggs to outlets in Killarney, Yangan, Warwick and Aratula as well as direct to the public.

Fiona Rimmer has 1200 chooks running on her 26ha Junabee property.
Fiona Rimmer has 1200 chooks running on her 26ha Junabee property.

 

"When we first started I spent most of each day collecting eggs - fortunately we've improved things since then," Ms Rimmer said.

MORNING RUSH HOUR: The 1200 hens are out from 9am until dark. The late start ensures most of the eggs are laid in the purpose-built laying boxes.
MORNING RUSH HOUR: The 1200 hens are out from 9am until dark. The late start ensures most of the eggs are laid in the purpose-built laying boxes.

 

Now the collection workload is shared with their two sons Lachlan, 6, and Daniel, 8, and "Uncle Bob" (Ken's brother), who regularly volunteers his time to help with the egg business.

"We were really lucky we already had the infrastructure on the property with the sheds so our set-up costs weren't too bad," she said.

An imported grading machine ensures the eggs are graded to national standard with 12 eggs weighing on average 800g.
An imported grading machine ensures the eggs are graded to national standard with 12 eggs weighing on average 800g.

 

"For us the hardest part has been finding a market that fitted our operation.

"We were too small to supply some of the larger supermarkets so we had to find different markets and it was a hard slog."

She said Warwick's regional and rural base generally meant local customers weren't as impressed as their urban counterparts by the free-range tag.

"Here people are still used to having a few chooks in the yards so it wasn't as strong a selling point as it is in places like Brisbane."

But her perseverance paid off and today she has no trouble selling the 900 eggs on average produced daily on the farm.

Business growth means she has also had to invest in a 1600 egg grader imported from Holland, along with a small washing machine.

"We are still small scale, but we're doing okay," Ms Rimmer said.

While the majority of eggs are sold to retailers in south-east Queensland, eight boxes - with 15 dozen eggs per box - are delivered to a New Farm restaurant each week.

"We sell our eggs for around $4 a carton and, because of our size, we can't sell them much cheaper and still cover costs."

Monday and Tuesday each week are delivery days for the eggs and a roadside stall outside the family's Jingarry-Mt Sturt farm ensure the remainder are available direct to the public.

From a practical perspective, the hens free range during the daylight and are housed in a shed during the night to protect them from predators.

"The chooks have 65 acres to roam on," Ms Rimmer said.

"We don't have a lot of trouble with foxes, but we do have four little Jack Russells and a blue dog and the chook shed is just 100m from the house."

While the flock has access to seasonal crops like oats and lucerne, they also have access to grain 24/7.

"I buy on average three tonne of Riverina laying mash a month.

"The premix feed works for us, because it has sorghum, corn, wheat and minerals for laying hens."

Yet rising grain prices have continued to add pressure on the young business.

Three years ago when she started the free range operation the pre-mix feed was around $400 a tonne; now it is closer to $570 a tonne.

"Egg prices haven't changed though so it's challenging," Ms Rimmer said.

In the meantime she's busy juggling primary school-aged children, 1200 chooks, eggs delivery and a part-time job in Warwick.

And it seems even when you wash, grade, pack and stamp 900 eggs a day, it doesn't put you off eating the grocery staple.

"Yes we did get sick of eggs for a while earlier on, but now we still have bacon and eggs and quiche now it's warmer."



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