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Eggs_ The farm that provides Riverford with its wealthy, natural eggs

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Brenda has gone lacking. The plucky younger hen scaled the fence and now she’s off throughout the fields in direction of Dartmoor. Fuelled by the heady pleasure of being on the free once more, she leaves her colleagues behind to hold on with the every day enterprise of scratching about within the grass. The wayward member of this 600-strong flock, on Orchard Natural Farm close to Newton Abbot in Devon, has earned a popularity for not towing the road. However fairly than feeling exasperated together with her, farmer Jerry Saunders and his staff can’t assist however admire her spirit. “There are some characters among the many flocks, however Brenda is an actual escape artist,” Jerry says. “I don’t fear an excessive amount of, although. She at all times comes again to the egg amassing room for her lunch.”

The hens feast on a weight-reduction plan of clover-rich grass (with a couple of cucumbers, French beans and leeks thrown in for good measure).

Jerry is delighting within the sight of all his free rangers stretching their legs among the many buttercups. “The farm comes again to life right now of 12 months,” he says, scattering some French beans and holding out a cucumber for his layers to strive. All the things is rising and flourishing, together with the grass and herbs the hens feed on and which supplies their eggs these wealthy, orangey yolks. “I like to listen to them chatting away collectively as they’re feeding. As a result of they’re in small flocks, we get to know characters like Brenda rather well.”

Orchard Natural Farm close to Newton Abbot in Devon is dwelling to a 6,000-strong flock of Lohmann hens.

TRADING ON EGGSHELLS

Jerry purchased the farm, which is a stone’s throw from the coast, in partnership together with his mother and father in 1991. Again then, it was in a dilapidated state. Regardless of having no farming expertise, he set about bringing it again to life, stocking it with small herds of cattle and sheep and funding the enterprise together with his day job as a structural engineer. “It had been a long-held household dream to have our personal farm,” Jerry explains. They went natural again in 1997, however it quickly grew to become clear that to make it financially viable for Jerry to farm full time, he would want to give attention to a selected product with a transparent demand.

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Fortuitously, round this time he heard that native veg-box scheme Riverford was on the lookout for farmers to provide natural eggs and apples: “We had at all times stored a couple of hens in three home made cellular sheds. However it nonetheless meant a giant leap of religion, a critical chat with the financial institution and a steep studying curve. We began with three homes and 1,500 chickens. I’ve fond reminiscences (and nice images) of the primary hens being delivered, with the entire household – the youngsters have been toddlers – eagerly awaiting them.”

Youngsters Charlotte, Oliver and Lucy earn their maintain by lending a hand on the farm.

They now have ten cellular laying sheds with a complete of 6,000 Lohmann hens – a Dutch variation on the usual brown hybrid, bred for his or her excessive yields. Their flock produces 30,000 eggs per week, all collected and boxed by hand. Most of them go to Riverford and small native impartial meals outlets, whereas the remaining are bought within the Saunders’ charmingly easy honesty store (not too long ago introduced into the twenty first century with a card machine). Inside, guests can select their eggs and check out the farm’s apple juice, whereas watching the staff grade and pack. “When prospects stroll right into a grocery store, it’s bewildering – they see packing containers labelled corn-fed, barn-bred, comfortable eggs, free-range…” Jerry says. “Right here, they’ll discover natural eggs. By seeing the hens out within the fields, they will perceive simply what which means.”

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

The Orchard Natural egg journey all begins with a supply of 1,000 fluffy day-old chicks as soon as each ten weeks. At this time, Jerry and his companion Emma’s youngest baby Charlotte, 11, is dealing with and checking the most recent batch that arrived per week in the past. Her older sister Lucy, 14, and brother Oliver, 16, are additionally naturals with these tiny birds. All three kids earn their maintain by doing totally different duties on the farm, together with packing eggs, main excursions across the farmyard for holidaymakers and serving prospects within the store.

The Orchard Natural egg journey all begins with a supply of 1,000 fluffy day-old chicks as soon as each ten weeks.

Hens are stored in small flocks of simply 600 (natural techniques can group as much as 3,000) and the cellular henhouses are moved about, so the flock have entry to a ‘ley’ or ‘vary’ of contemporary clover-rich grass. Famed for its lushness, this West Nation pasture can be excessive within the carotenoids that give the eggs their superior flavour and extremely prized orangey-yellow yolks. Jerry sows herbs among the many grass, too, together with chicory, which incorporates the inulin fibre that’s nice for the birds’ intestine flora.

Hens are stored in flocks of 600 and the cellular henhouses are moved about, in order that they have entry to contemporary clover-rich grass.

The land they depart behind is ploughed up, the robust natural matter of droppings fertilising the soil prepared for a crop of corn. That is later used to complement the weight-reduction plan of the hens, as are the courgettes, leeks, runner beans and different greens with which they often provide Riverford. It’s prepared for hens once more two years after the flock left it. When there’s a risk of chicken flu, Jerry – like different poultry farmers and hen keepers – is obliged to maintain his flocks inside their sheds. So he features a sandpit for dustbathing, haynets to leap at and loads of area to scratch about. This ensures the hens live as pure a life as attainable whereas beneath the poultry equal of lockdown.

Their flock produces 30,000 eggs per week, all collected and boxed by hand.

On a stupendous spring day like this one, Jerry and his staff of 4 (six part-time employees work on a rota) begin work at 8am, releasing every flock outdoor. “They have a tendency to cost about and be in a superb temper within the morning,” he says. The staff then accumulate eggs from every of the ten henhouses, perform normal checks, monitor meals and water, and clear them out. “We at all times put the hens’ welfare first, and nice eggs comply with,” Jerry says. Then everybody, together with Jerry’s mother and father Frank and Sally, collect for breakfast collectively again on the farm at 10.30am (concluded with the customary recreation of darts), after which eggs are checked, graded and packed.

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Famed for its lushness, the West Nation pasture is excessive in carotenoids that give the eggs a superior flavour and orange yolks.

FREE-RANGE LIFE

There’s a fantastic symbiosis between the chickens and the orchards that give the enterprise its title. The Saunders have planted greater than 1,000 apple bushes on the farm lately. These present the shade and shelter hens get pleasure from, whereas the birds repay the favour by gobbling up any bugs dangerous to the bushes and fertilise the bottom. Jerry works on this facet of the enterprise within the afternoon, earlier than giving his flocks a ultimate test: “Somewhat helpfully, the hens put themselves to mattress at nightfall however I nonetheless go round to close up the homes with my collie Ted.”

The Saunders have a ardour for telling folks about what they do and present tons of of tourists round Orchard Natural Farm yearly. “I’m at all times on the lookout for an excuse to get folks in and allow them to take a look round,” Jerry says. Holidaymakers flock to their six tenting pitches and the three glamping pods (the previous hen arks) tucked into the orchard. Jerry and Emma additionally organise occasions together with kids’s events and a sure Easter recreation of hide-and-seek. It’s exhausting to think about a greater setting for an egg hunt.

For extra data on Orchard Natural Farm, see orchardorganicfarm.co.uk. Produce is on the market direct and thru Riverford (riverford.co.uk).

Hen welfare is of utmost significance and they’re inspired to reside as pure a life as attainable on the free vary farm.

Produce is on the market direct and thru Riverford.

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