Sustainability & transparency key to new free range egg venture

AustralianFarmers

The Warner family is adding eggs to their production basket, diversifying their Victorian farming enterprise with an eye to sustainability and transparency. With two egg operations – Caravan Eggs and Green Eggs – the family is addressing two ends of the free range market.

If you’ve ever wondered about the journey of the free-range egg you fry in the morning, the Warner family is a great place to ask.

The fourth and fifth generation farmers from Victoria were traditional beef, sheep and broadacre farmers until six years ago, when a new idea was hatched. With three of their four children coming back to work on the land, it was time to expand into a new venture.

In 2015 the family ventured into eggs as a way to look at succession

Image: Georgie Mann

“I’m a nurse by trade, but I knew I always wanted to come back to the farm. After eight years of nursing, I came back to the farm in 2018 to join mum and dad, Jill and Robert, and my two brothers, Ollie and Alex and their partners, Milli and Jade,” Kate Warner says.

We ventured into eggs in 2015 as a way to diversify the family operation from traditional farming, both for interest’s sake and also for consistent cash flow rather than a seasonal cash flow. It was also a way to look at succession.

Kate Warner surrounded by several chickens

Image: Georgie Mann

Expansion and diversification

The Warners launched Caravan Eggs on the volcanic plains of their main property, Jaskro Park, with just 450 chickens and a dream to provide truly free range eggs. The family crafted special chook ‘caravans’ which are essentially mobile sheds. Each shed is entirely self-sufficient, with solar panels to power the nesting systems and rainwater tanks which catch the rain from the roof.

The family has used innovative practices to home their chickens

Image: Georgie Mann

The operation has now grown to 8,000 birds, with up to 1000 chickens per caravan. The mini-sheds are hooked behind tractors and towed to fresh pasture every three days, with the added benefit of the chickens helping to fertilise the grass they graze. This works in harmony with the stock – 10,000 head of sheep and several hundred head of cattle – and cropping rotations.

With demand for the ‘open range’ eggs continuing to grow, the Warners looked at how they could diversify yet again.

A tray of the Warners’ eggs

Image: Georgie Mann

“When Caravan Eggs needed a new egg grading facility, we decided to expand further and bought an established free range enterprise at the Great Western,” Kate says. “Green Eggs has been running for 15 years and is a much bigger operation with 35,000 chickens.”

Located north east of Great Western, Kate lives on Green Egg farm with her partner, Jarrod and their seven month old daughter Genevieve. The egg operation shares 1,200 acres of rolling hills with a mob of sheep, enjoying expansive views of the Grampians and the Black Ranges. As a less labour intensive operation compared to Caravan Eggs, the Warners can now supply two different price points while maintaining a quality product.

COVID-19 challenges traditional ways of operating

The Warners bought the Green Eggs business in February 2020 – just before COVID-19 and all of its challenges struck. Producing and selling 17,000 dozen eggs a week amid lockdowns and staff shortages has required all of the producer’s creative nous.

The Warners purchased ‘Green Eggs’ in early 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic

Image: Georgie Mann

“We used to employ backpackers at both Caravan Eggs and Green Eggs, which was obviously impacted by border closures,” Kate says.

Since buying Green Eggs, we haven’t has a consistent period. Every month has been different with new regulations or lockdowns which has a flow on effect on the catering and pre-pack market. There’s no even distribution between the two – if there’s a lockdown, supermarket sales go up and catering goes down. We can’t predict anything.

But the family has adapted. When there aren’t any lockdowns, the Caravan Eggs team sell their eggs at regional markets from Warrnambool and Ballarat to Geelong, as well as servicing independent grocers and butchers – while Green Eggs are sold in Melbourne markets and at some Woolworths Metro. On average, the enterprise sell 3600 dozen eggs across 12 markets a month.

Kate says COVID regulations has left the family to adapt to selling eggs regionally

Image: Georgie Mann

“Since Covid-19, I have noticed a shift in our customers really wanting to know our story and where their food comes from,” Kate says.

“We love being able to connect directly with our customers at farmer’s markets and getting that immediate feedback. It’s something our whole family has enjoyed after doing mainstream production where you don’t really connect with the farmer. We can talk to the chef, we can talk to the shop owner who stocks the eggs.”

With a focus on provenance and transparency, the family use platforms like Instagram to chat with their very engaged customer base.

“I think we’re so fortunate we have social media in this day and age, so we can share the pictures and the stories directly, quickly and easily on the spot and in the moment. People ask a lot of questions and really like interacting,” Kate says.

“We’re trying to use our packaging as well to talk to our consumers. Caravan Eggs has the story written on the carton’s side and we’re working on some packaging for Green Eggs to really amplify that interaction. We’re trying to be really transparent. Leonie, who is in the office, touches base with every customer each week, keeping that communication open, for feedback but also – especially during COVID-19 – to be a support and let them know we’re here.”

The family utilises social media to connect with customers

Image: Georgie Mann

The transparency of the operation is beautifully and simply spelled out on the Warners’ various websites, showing healthy and happy chooks grazing amid the gums. The family use Moremma dogs to protect their flock; huge fluffy Italian herding dogs which are fiercely loyal – and gorgeous! – guards, making for a very photogenic operation.

We love what we do. We just want to be as sustainable and as transparent as we can be. We call the birds ‘the girls’ and they really do rule the roost!

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