Hood's Earth Produce in Keith are redefining the free range egg standards

KEITH egg farmers Sal and Bill Hood are redefining the egg industry after introducing the first “chicken caravans” and grass-fed free range eggs in SA.

They house their 5000 “chookens” in the portable coops on their 810ha block.

The chooks run in flocks of around 1000, producing 30,000 pastured free range eggs a week.

Pastured animals are raised in paddocks and have more than just freedom from confinement.

The chooks can express their natural instincts like scratching, digging and dust bathing.

Pastured farming also has beneficial impacts for the environment. By rotating the animals over fresh soil, their waste enriches the soil rather than harming it.

Pastured production also doesn’t rely on the use of non-renewable resources.

The Hoods’ philosophy is simple: the plants feed the animals and the animals feed the plants.

“The caravans house the chooks in the evenings,” Mrs Hood said. “They are designed so the chooks will live outside, that’s what makes them special.

“In a normal free range environment the coops are made so the chooks can live inside and go outside if they want to.

“In the chicken caravan, it is designed so that they live outside and go inside only to lay an egg or perch.

“Therefore they express themselves in a normal environment.”

The Hood family first heard about pastured free range eggs and the chook-mobiles, while travelling around Australia last year – then an idea began to hatch.

But as for what came first – the chicken or the egg – she is “still trying to work that one out!”.

Originally traditional beef cattle farmers, they realised that the eggs on offer around the country didn’t taste the same theirs grown at home.

They came up with a mission to produce real and tasty paddock eggs, while aiming to connect with their customers and give them the honest information about healthy and sustainable choices around food and farming.

Farmers are now able to have up to 10,000 birds per hectare to be classed as free range.

However, Mrs Hood believes there needs to be some clarification around pastured free range and higher density farming.

“Normal free range is 25,000 chooks on the Adelaide Oval for one year, with us it is 18 chooks on the Adelaide Oval for five nights, then they get a fresh oval,” she said.

“I think it is very difficult for producers that are running low density with 1500 birds or less per hectare to be able to differentiate between that and the 10,000 birds per hectare.

“So what would be really lovely is that they re-worded it, because I believe that a consumer when they hear the word free range  imagines the chooks to be run like ours do. But it’s simply not the case, it’s more like a barn-laid system.”

This interpretation of free range has recently been put under the microscope by the State Government.

Earlier this year the Government released a draft code, regulations and trademark to stop confusion about the definition a free range egg.

In October public consultation was launched.

Business Services and Consumer Affairs Minister Gail Gago said: “Consumer Affairs Ministers have agreed a national standard is urgently needed to improve consumer confidence and certainty around egg labelling.

“When shoppers buy their eggs, it’s very important they should know exactly what they are paying for, and the environment from which the eggs come from.

“For far too long, Australian consumers have been confused about the way eggs are labelled, particularly the definition of ‘free range’’ across the States, and we want to see this cleared up.”

Research by Egg Farmers of Australia (EFA) last month showed the broad alignment between Australian consumers and egg farmers about the definition.

The research found consumers were happy with one hen per square metre classified as free range and that 76 per cent of those who currently buy free-range say that if the price of a dozen extra-large (700g) eggs exceeded $5.50, they would be too expensive.

EFA spokesman John Coward said: "The research clearly demonstrated that the external stocking density of one hen per square metre matches the expectations of nearly three quarters of Australian consumers.”

"And it’s clear that price is fundamentally important for even the most ardent shoppers who say they are led by animal welfare concerns.

"For consumers, acceptable pricing for free-range eggs falls between $3 and $6 a dozen and any measure that drives free-range egg pricing beyond this would have significant ramifications for consumer behaviour, along with egg producers."

However, the Hoods’ venture has inspired other local egg producers to get on the grass-fed train.

One farm in Kimba and three grass-fed egg producers near Mount Gambier have started since visiting the Hoods and all are looking into chicken caravans.

The Hoods also take their eggs to the Adelaide Showgrounds Farmers Market every fortnight and donate to Oz Harvest.

“The best thing about this is being able to give eggs to people who need them and giving them to the homeless,” Mrs Hood said.

“It is just one of the most incredible things to be able to support sporting clubs, schools where they can value add. That is one of the most amazing things – that’s fun.

“That is what I love about the egg product. I love the way you can educate people with it.

“We are always happy to help with sporting clubs, community groups, anyone! We are also looking into working with local schools and starting up some breakfast programs.”