Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food – What we Learned at Echo Valley Farm

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food – What we Learned at Echo Valley Farm

We had the best day out at Echo Valley Farm yesterday. A group of almost 70 people enjoyed a tour of the farm followed by a delicious lunch with fresh produce straight from the farm.

Randall and Juanita Breen are first generation farmers based at Goomburra, about 2 hours south of Brisbane. They produce free-range eggs, pork and beef. But there's something really special about the way they farm. They are not doing things conventionally but thinking outside the box and working hard to find natural solutions to every challenge they face.

The Breens are following a regenerative model of farming, inspired largely by Joel Salatin, a farmer and author from the United States. Salatin rotates chickens, cows and pigs on his land to build the soil which in turn produces beautiful fresh plants for the animals to eat and helps to drought-proof the land. Using this method he has created a farm that produces food for over 600 local families and a large number of restaurants every single week - without the use of any chemicals or antibiotics.

By rotating animals on the land, this model of regenerative farming avoids problems with parasites, which many other farmers face because animals are kept in the same area for long periods of time. The Breens' chickens for example are moved to fresh pasture every few days.

There is so much more to learn about this model of farming, it's truly fascinating stuff and it is the future of farming. Conventional mono-crop methods that are heavily reliant on chemical inputs are destroying our soil, polluting our rivers, our bodies and becoming less and less productive as bugs become resistant to pesticides. Things need to change!

Here's a few other random things we learned on the weekend:

Eggs should not be washed!

When a chicken lays an egg she puts a coating on the egg to protect it, called a 'bloom'. The bloom preserves the nutritional value of the egg. If the egg is washed, the bloom is removed and the porous egg will absorb what is in the water it's washed in. Most conventional egg farmers wash their eggs in a chlorine solution! Yep, it's going in your egg. Echo Valley eggs are not washed - they come straight from the chicken to you.

Free-range is not what you think it is.

Yes you should always choose free-range over cage eggs but unfortunately it's not always much better. Free-range laws currently allow 5,000 birds per hectare and the birds can stay on the same piece of land indefinitely. With this kind of density they will run out of fresh grass within days. What's more, operations of this size usually cut the chickens beaks so they don't attack each other - something that can happen when they simply don't have enough space to move! 

A farmer can also say his operation is 'free-range' if the chickens are in a shed but have access to the outdoors, even if it's only through a tiny door which is guarded by one chicken who's decided the door belongs to her! Chickens are territorial and this is something that can often happen. So none of the chickens actually go outdoors.

Echo Valley chickens on the other hand are completely free-range from day one. They have a mobile shed to sleep in that they can go in and out of as they please. They keep 500 hens per hectare and move them to fresh pasture every few days. They never de-beak their chickens, nor would they need to as they have plenty of space to roam. They use Mareema Dogs to protect the chickens from eagles.

Pigs are a great way to reduce food waste!

50% of the food fed to Echo Valley's pigs is food that would otherwise have been wasted. Every week Juanita collects leftover food from places like Food Connect, Gutsy and Buchi Kombucha. Much of it is probiotic-rich waste products! Imagine what could be achieved if systems were in place to divert more food waste to pig food. The Breens aim is for food waste to become 100% of their pigs' diet.

What is a weed anyway?

Have you ever wondered who defined which plants are weeds and which aren't? Randall says weeds only exist in mono cultures. And that's just because they are different! In actual fact, many plants we call weeds provide brilliant ground cover for the soil, retaining moisture - something that is very much needed during times of drought (which we are currently experiencing). Certain plants also put particular nutrients into the soil, like nitrogen for example. So where most farmers would buy a nitrogen supplement, the Breens instead plant a whole lot of nitrogen rich 'weeds'. These plants also provide a nutrient-dense diet for their animals.

These are just a few points to show you how farmers like Randall and Juanita are doing things differently. But they're up against a lot of challenges. Many of the commercial farming bodies don't want things to change and there's a lot of red tape in place that makes doing anything outside of the norm difficult (even when it makes vastly more sense!). The government provides no assistance (even in times of terrible drought) and most consumers continue to choose the cheapest option.

So it really is an uphill battle to make a farm like Echo Valley successful, but you can help! Educating yourself on where your food comes from and getting to know your farmer is the first step. Go on farm tours, read, learn and start to understand what it being done to our food. Watch POLYFACES – A WORLD OF MANY CHOICES. What could be more important than something you do at least three times a day (EAT)?

You can support the great work Randall and Juanita are doing at Echo Valley by:

  • Buying their eggs (through us, Food Connect or at the West End Markets)
  • Buying their meat (they deliver to Brisbane)
  • Signing up to their brand new CSA system (Community-Supported Agriculture). This is a brilliant way to be part of the farm – sign up for 6 or 12 months, get a monthly meat delivery and know that your money helps provide certainty of income for the farmer and the freshest, top quality meat for your family.

How you spend your money can make a difference – to our farmers, our animals, our land and our health! Spend it wisely.

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