Chooks prove handy lifestyle

Angela PownallCountryman

F armers Jeff Pow and Michelle McManus, who are leading the way in producing hand-raised pastured poultry in Australia, want the WA and Federal governments to reduce their focus on Asian farming exports and support local start-ups and entrepreneurs

The couple run the Southampton Homestead near Balingup, a pioneering farm where they raise their chickens by hand on perennial pastures and sell the poultry at farmers’ markets and through social media.

Marking a huge shift from industrial poultry production, the farm is one of a few nationwide to open a micro-abattoir on site where they slaughter birds by hand 200m from the pastures.

Huge demand and interest from consumers in Perth and the South West, and online, allows the couple to sell out almost every week.

Poultry consumption is at a record level in Australia.

“The opportunity for pasture-raised or grass fed farm animals is enormous and we’ve got the climate and now the community demand is creating an opportunity, ” Mr Pow said.

“If only we could find some way that the State Government and the Federal Government would begin to support and incubate businesses in a serious hardware-type way because the current food standards are a barrier.”

A decade ago, Mr Pow was spending his days on St George’s Terrace — the heart of Perth’s corporate world — as a business consultant for major companies, including mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

Now, the 47-year-old begins every day by moving 2000 chickens to pastures new, literally, on his 49ha farm near Balingup in WA’s South West.

“They have a fresh salad bar every day, ” he said.

“They get so excited. When you come in in the morning and you grab this (the coop) and start dragging it along, they run to where the new grass is and start foraging.”.

In contrast to industrial poultry production, the Southampton chickens are free to forage on a variety of chemical-free grasses in outdoor coops that are moved to fresh pasture daily.

A herd of 11 cattle also graze the land on a rotational basis to fertilise the pasture.

When the time comes, Mr Pow and his wife Michelle McManus, who joined the farm in 2013 after a career in business consulting, slaughter their chickens by hand in a tiny abattoir housed in a sea container next to the pastures.

Along with a few local employees, they prepare and package the chickens by hand, and freeze them to take to farmer’s markets and buyer’s clubs in Perth and the South West.

Using the business acumen from their corporate careers, Mr Pow and Ms McManus have set the price of the poultry according to what they need to charge to make a profit good enough to live on. Mr Pow said the prices were about 30 per cent higher than industrially produced chicken sold in supermarkets, though about $3.50 a breast, the price can be comparable.

It began in 2006 when Mr Pow bought the historic homestead, which was built in 1862, with a vision to restore former pine plantation land to perennial pastures and create a working farm with a difference.

But in February 2013, his dream was shattered by a huge bushfire that tore through the valley and destroyed the farm, the homestead and many of his animals. Financially, Mr Pow faced a choice to either rebuild the homestead or re-establish the business.

He chose the latter and the couple now live in a purpose-built corrugated iron barn, metres away from the ruins of their property.

Mr Pow describes that time as a “crucible of experience” filled with lots of despair.

“You’ve got to lie down in the paddock and cry sometimes, ” he says.

“You have to give yourself the opportunity. It’s not just despair, it’s healing, too. Doing that let me continue to build hope and as the valley recovered, so did I. Very quickly I was suddenly faced with a decision — I stock now because the perennials are all good to go or I leave because ‘what do you do?’ So I decided to stay.”

Mr Pow learnt holistic farming management, removing the need for artificial fertilisers and chemicals. His cattle are moved every three days to make their contribution.

Ms McManus, 33, said though the cows were not a revenue stream, they were critical to the management of the property.

“Ultimately having really good, diverse perennial pasture is what supports our entire operation. It’s what the chickens live on. It’s what makes them taste good. It’s what makes their lives better, ” she said.

“We move them (the cows) bit by bit around the farm which basically mimics what used to happen in nature when large herds of wild herbivores would move along.

“They dung and urine and they fertilise.”

Ms McManus said it was considered radical, but it was an alternative to big herds and chemicals to manage pastures and it was working.

In the brooder, 1000 balls of yellow fluff that are seven-day-old Ross chicks, dart around cheeping.

In three weeks, they will graduate into the coops to began foraging.

Mr Pow and Ms McManus raise Ross chickens mainly, sourcing the hatchlings from one of WA’s major producers, because it is the only breed that can be supplied in big enough numbers to make their farm viable.

“For our farm to work, we need to produce 10,000 birds a year, ” Mr Pow said.

Bred for industrial meat production, the Ross broiler chicken has limitations for pasture-raising.

“They’ve been genetically selected over time to exhibit characteristics of a bird that grows well in a shed; not too many feathers, get big really quickly, ” Ms McManus said.

The couple discovered the hard way that Ross chickens cannot be pasture-raised during summer because they overheat, nor can they thrive outside the coop because they are prone to disease.

The Sommerlad chicken doesn’t have the same problems, so Mr Pow and Ms McManus are working to build up a fledgling stock of this bird, which has been bred by a NSW small producer to forage and live outside.

“Their activity. Their vigour. They’re just a robust bird. They’ve gone back to the strengths in the brood, ” Mr Pow said.

Ms McManus said customer feedback had been positive, with some only buying the Sommerlad meat for ethical reasons.

“We get older English folk going ‘These are the chickens of my childhood’, ” Mr Pow said.

After between 10 to 12 weeks, the time comes for the birds to be slaughtered.

Mr Pow is the slaughterer. Ms McManus is the butcher. With four others, they harvested 110 birds on Tuesday this week.

Mr Pow said it is a stress-free, quick and undramatic process, and that he thanks each bird before he stuns them.

In their third year of operation after the devastating bushfire, the farm is finally back on its feet.

Southampton Homestead has built up a big following of fans and customers on social media.

But growth and expansion of this small operation in an idyllic pocket of South West WA is not an option.

“We’re a zero growth model, so our interest is more players in the marketplace, ” Mr Pow said. “We’re not monos. We want diversity.”

Last year the couple held a three-month residency program and showed four people in their early 20s every element of their farming and business model.

Mr Pow lamented that none of them was from WA and called on the State Government to encourage and support start-ups and entrepreneurs in farming.

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