North East & Goulburn Murray Farmer - - Front Page - PHOTO: Jamie Kronborg

Ch­eryl Gra­ham on her Myrrhee Val­ley farm, with her graz­ing and in­quis­i­tive Isa Brown hens. Ms Gra­ham is em­bark­ing on the pro­duc­tion of truly free-range pas­tured eggs with her brood of hens spend­ing their days graz­ing around pad­docks and their nights in the ‘chook car­a­van’ lay­ing their eggs.

CH­ERYL Gra­ham squats in the green­est of pad­docks on the most per­fect of au­tumn days and is mobbed by 399 Isa Brown hens.

They vie for her at­ten­tion, beak­ing around her gum­boots and jeans and scratch­ing about her feet.

The more timid of them ‘freeze’, as chooks will, and are happy to be picked up and nursed for the cam­era.

Ev­ery crea­ture in the frame seems to bask in the mo­ment.

It is to this 57-hectare piece of ru­ral won­der in the up­per Myrrhee Val­ley – with tim­ber rid­ing up the hills around us and the ranges beetling away to­wards the alps to the south – which Ch­eryl, live­stock specialist and agri­cul­tural con­sul­tant, has brought years of pas­sion for farm­ing.

It’s here that she’s em­bark­ing on the pro­duc­tion of truly free-range pas­tured eggs from a brood of in­quis­i­tive, chest­nut­feath­ered, red-combed birds which roam-graze vivid green pas­ture by day and con­gre­gate in a spank­ing-new ‘chook car­a­van’ by night and to lay their eggs.

“If I use my logic I’d say ‘No, this is go­ing to be a seven-day-a-week job’, and I think of all the sen­si­ble things about why I shouldn’t do it but I just couldn’t let it go,” Ch­eryl says.

As a child grow­ing up in Syd­ney’s sub­urbs she kept bees, raised chooks and bred budgeri­gars.

“We lived on a pretty busy road and I was able to sell honey and bud­gies,” Ch­eryl says.

“It took me about five years to con­vince mum and dad to let me have a cow.

“I got a jersey heifer – there was a spare block of land next to us – when I sup­pose I was about 15 or 16.

“From four months of age I reared it and later got her in­sem­i­nated. She had a calf and I milked her and made cheese.

“I tell this story and my girls say ‘Mum, you were a very weird teenager,’but that’s how it all be­gan.”

Ch­eryl also went to a then-new Syd­ney high school with a small farm that only en­cour­aged her drive to know all things about farm­ing and farm pro­duc­tion.

It led to Hawkesbury Agri­cul­tural Col­lege, a ca­reer as a govern­ment-em­ployed live­stock specialist and later an agri­cul­tural con­sul­tant, a mar­riage to one – hus­bandTim Ek­berg – and the de­vel­op­ment of their busi­ness, ‘Farm­ing an­swers’.

About three years ago, liv­ing in Mi­lawa, Ch­eryl took a group of farm­ing women to the Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre al­ter­na­tive farm at Thur­goona, near Al­bury.

“They had a ‘chicken trac­tor’ (chook car­a­van) and pigs in the pad­dock and I thought ‘Right, that’s it’, and from there I be­gan tri­alling it on a small scale,” she says.

“Again, the next door neighbor had a spare block and I asked if we could put our chooks there.

“We sup­plied her with eggs, we learned the ins and outs of pro­duc­tion and be­gan to sell free-range eggs to the Mi­lawa Cheese fac­tory and Wan­garatta health food shop.”

The dream re­mained. Early last year Ch­eryl and Tim bought their Myrrhee Val­ley property and – af­ter “many bud­gets and much re­search” – took de­liv­ery of their first ‘chook car­a­van’.

Six weeks ago the first hens ar­rived from a Boho South breeder and within the next year Ch­eryl plans to triple the brood to 1200.

“We worked out that on this (present) scale there’s no money in it when you ac­count for the cap­i­tal costs of the car­a­van, cool room for the eggs and all those ex­penses that need to be spread over a larger vol­ume of prod­uct,” Ch­eryl says.

Come au­tumn 2015 and she ex­pects to have three car­a­vans in the pad­dock and to be pro­duc­ing al­most 600 dozen eggs per week.

Ch­eryl has al­ready scouted the mar­ket in the North East and in Mel­bourne for what will be la­belled ‘Wild Hen Farm’ eggs.

These will be cer­ti­fied as truly free-range by Aus­tralian and New Zealand an­i­mal wel­fare ac­cred­i­ta­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion Hu­mane Choice.

In the mean­time her first gag­gle of in­quis­i­tive, so­cia­ble pul­lets with their myr­iad per­son­al­i­ties continues to grow on their mix of grass and pel­let­sup­ple­ment diet, as does the size of their eggs.

Ch­eryl breaks three into a bowl on her kitchen bench – man­darin-colored yolks in pert, opaque whites.

“They’re grass-fed – you can taste the dif­fer­ence,” Ch­eryl says.

And there’s no doubt­ing her opin­ion when you know that a long-held child­hood dream, worked hard and smart, is about to be brought to fruition.

ROOM TO MOVE: Hens roam freely in the green pas­ture while their mo­bile home takes pride in the ma­jes­tic Myrrhee Val­ley.

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