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Farming in no man’s land

  • , by Jacob Wolki
  • 4 min reading time
Farming in no man’s land

I’ve found myself farming in no man’s land. My family started our farming journey in 2019. In the beginning we related with so many homesteaders and small-scale farms. We had similar enterprises, struggles, and stories. The big farms were ‘pie in the sky’ lofty dreams of landholding and it felt like they were in another world.

Over the last few years, as our enterprise has naturally scaled to meet consumer demand, a void has grown. Now when I talk to the homesteaders and burgeoning direct to market (D2M) start ups they refer to ‘Wolki Farm’ as something else.

They preface communications as “we are just a hobby farm, not like you” or “maybe you don’t deal with this, as you’re so big”. Then my next conversation will be with someone on the other end of the spectrum who is managing thousands of ewes, or tens-of-thousands of acres – and a similar void appears.

I’ve been contemplating this strange progression of our placement for a while.I feel like we are farming in ‘no man’s land’. It’s not lonely and I don’t see us as victims or outsiders. It’s exciting; like we are pioneers. I love watching western films. The adventure and pioneering of a new land is so full of wonder, anticipation, and risk – it’s exhilarating.

It’s easy to lament that there is no frontier for our modern generation to contend with, but that’s naive. Artificial intelligence, social media, space exploration -- it’s apparent to those with a curious mind that today’s world has more intrigue and opportunity than ever before.

Apparently, the Australian meat chicken industry processes over 1,500,000 birds per day. That’s likely over 2.5 tonnes of chicken consumed per day. (Article linked shows more). I did some ringing around last week to all my farming buds who are involved in pasture-raised poultry. I couldn’t find anyone in Australia doing over 1000 birds a week -- which represents 0.0006% of daily consumption. Is that a problem? That depends on your personal values and ideals. Is that an opportunity? Absolutely. A noble one at that.

When we look abroad there are many producers in the USA who have scaled far beyond the scope of anyone in Australia. Polyface Farm of Virginia, led by the formidable and charismatic Joel Salatin, have arguably done more for pasture-raised chicken (and livestock in general) than any other. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Salatin twice and he is a huge source of inspiration, knowledge, and motivation for me.

White Oak Pastures, led by the eloquent Will Harris, have scaled a fantastic D2M farm business. They farm a wide range of pasture-raised poultry including chicken, turkey, duck, and guinea fowl.

But right now the shining star in the pastured poultry world is Pasturebird, led by the competent Paul Greive. Their Automated Range Coop (ARC) is something to behold. A 45m x 15m structure that houses 6000 broilers on pasture and can manage automated daily moves and temperature regulation, all powered by solar.

In my opinion, innovation is sorely needed if a pasture-raised offering of chicken is ever going to represent a meaningful part of the industry. Why is pasture raised chicken worthwhile? Firstly, raising chickens for their whole lives in closed sheds just plain sucks. If you need an explanation as to why, you have probably landed on the wrong website.

Chickens – and all animals, for that matter – should be afforded the basic right to express their natural expressions. For a chicken, that includes things like consuming a natural omnivorous diet, being social, basking in sunshine, enjoying a dust bath, and not being forced to sleep on its own manure. 

Secondly, getting chickens on pasture is an environmental wonder. The natural organic fertiliser that they deposit right onto the land is a magical wonder. It doesn’t take a seasoned farmer to tell where the chickens have been on our farm. Farm tour participants regularly catch the drift and can spot where chickens have roosted very quickly as the land is lush and singing with fertility.

Thirdly, the product is sensational. Chicken used to be a flavour. Chicken stock, chicken flavoured chips, chicken salt. Now chicken is an inoffensive medium to transfer added flavour.

A huge portion of the chicken offered at our butchers or supermarkets come marinated in exciting ‘peri peri’ or ‘garlic and lemon’ flavour bombs, sure to impress the kids.

Matthew Evans talks about the progression of chicken changing from a flavour to a bland medium of food in his great book, On Eating Meat. Imagine if the chicken became the flavour again?

Well folks, with a bit of time on pasture, some care and patience, it can. 

So for now, I’m excited about farming in no man’s land. I’m big to the little guys, and little to the big guys – but right where I want to be.

There’s not many people to lean on, but that’s OK. There is real excitement and wonder in tackling a market that doesn’t exist.

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