An interview with…Rookery Farm

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I love eggs, it’s a bit of an obsession. When Hannah suggested we interview some of the amazing local suppliers we have in Sussex, Rookery Farm was at the top of my list. Rupert, the owner was kind enough to let me go along, meet the chickens and have a chat.

Who is Rookery Farm?
We’re a small family farm and we produce organic free range eggs, we’ve got a lot of chickens! Some of our eggs go to Waitrose – the Blacktail brand, which we’ve done for years and years, but what we really do is supply independent cafes, shops and individuals.

Why organic?
Dad always had chickens right from the start and being a small farm, part of the reason behind becoming organic was to stay viable by doing something different. We went organic in 1998, it was early and it really took off but then we took a massive hit with the recession, which was pretty tough. Times are good again now but we’re lucky because we can access the masses of independent business in London. When you’re farming – even organically, it’s very commercial and it’s hard to do without there being a conflict of interest between the commercial side and the environmental side.  There is no way the whole country could farm organically and feed everyone, it’s just not feasible but in certain areas you can do it and I believe there should be a better balance. We should all be doing more for the environment; I’m just trying to do my bit.

What makes your farm different?
Our sheds are mobile (unlike most free range and organic sheds) and they are relatively big considering that. It’s difficult and they’re hard to move but each new flock of chickens are going on to fresh ground and the elimination of disease and parasites is the biggest advantage of that. We wash the sheds and get everything clean before we move them. It also means the area outside of the shed is fresh and the chickens get a new scratch area for dust baths. Chickens naturally dust bath which keeps they’re feather quality nice and helps to keep parasites away. Most of our ground is rested for 14 months before it’s used again.

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Tell me about your chickens?
The chickens are free to be outside whenever they want even in the winter. Once the pop holes are opened at around 8am, they can just wander in and out as they please. Most of the sheds hold just over 1600 birds and the sheds are moved between flocks. We buy the pullets (young chickens) in at 16 weeks old and they start laying eggs at about 20 -22 weeks. By the time they get to 72-80 weeks old, we have to get rid of them. In the past they’ve gone off for slaughter and been turned into stuff like soup or dog food. However the last flock of birds all got re-homed which was really cool, a charity from Kent called Fresh Start For Hens, re-homed 3000 chickens, it was really great. They’ve gone to peoples back gardens and they’ll carry on laying. Commercially we can’t keep them past 80 weeks old as the shell condition starts to deteriorate, you get lots of second grade eggs and less overall numbers produced as well. It gets to a point where the value of production doesn’t even cover the cost of the feed.

Why can’t your chickens be sold on as ‘organic’ chickens for eating?
Unfortunately they can’t be sold on as organic chickens because there is no real market for organic end of lay hens. Our chickens should be more valuable because they’re organic but no one can commercially do slaughterhouse to customer without them being mixed with non-organic end of lay birds. The other thing that many people aren’t aware of is the massive difference between a laying hen and an eating (broiler) chicken. Even an organic eating chicken tends to be only 12-16 weeks old when slaughtered and if you bought a really cheap one, its probably only 8 weeks old. Our chickens don’t even start laying eggs until 20 weeks. They are very different types of hen. It’s a constant cycle of flocks on the farm, but I feel that while they’re on the farm they have a pretty good life.

What’s a typical day at Rookery Farm?
We start at 5am and check each shed and let the chickens out, we check the lights, feeders and nest boxes are all working ok and the chickens are fine. The chickens get up at 3.30 in the winter (and go to bed soon after dark) or 4.30 in the summer so the nest boxes are timed to open so they can get in there to lay. Then we collect the eggs; the nest boxes are on a very slight slope so the eggs roll down onto a conveyer belt, which is hand wound to the end of the shed for collection. The eggs are then graded and packed.  We can’t shut the chickens up until it gets dark so in the summer whoever is shutting up doesn’t finish until 10.30pm.

What’s the best bit about running Rookery Farm?
The best bit is wandering around when its quiet and my phones not going off, that can be great. I also love our customers who love our eggs and tell us they wouldn’t buy anyone else’s – that’s really nice and satisfying.

And the worst?
The worst is the stress of running an organic business, we now have many rules and regulations, which are pretty daunting. I’m not very good at sitting in the office but I’m more and more office bound which is not great. Having said that if you’re organic there has to be proof that you’re doing it right, so you have to expect it.

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How do you like your eggs?
Obviously we eat a lot of eggs but I cannot eat hard-boiled eggs – it’s how you ruin an egg! I love scrambled or poached but scrambled only ever at home, I never order scrambled eggs anywhere! It’s never done quite how I like it, at home I lob some butter in and then try and be really patient! The best eggs to poach are small eggs, particularly if they’re pullet eggs when they first come in to lay as it gives you a better yolk to white ratio. In a pullet egg, the white really does stay round the egg to the point where people who want small eggs for scotch eggs are generally told to put them on a shelf for 10 days because they wont get the shell off otherwise as they’re so small and fresh.

Where can I buy Rookery Farm eggs?
From our farm shop in Flansham. Shops in the Worthing area include High Salvington Stores, Ceres Health Foods, Hobdens Bakery, The Pet Shop, Emmi and Iggs, plus many other outlets in Arundel, Brighton, and Chichester areas. People can also ring us on 01243 583583 and find out where the nearest outlet is to them.

Finally, tell me about Rookery Fit Farm?
We’ve built quite a hard assault course on land owned by the farm – although its an independent business. It’s open on Sunday mornings at 10am for sessions that anyone can come to. We also run beginner classes for people who are daunted about coming to the main class and also private hire. I started it with Dean Whitfield, a personal trainer friend. He’s quite a guy, he had a very bad car accident when he was about 18 and left hospital weighing 6 stone in a wheelchair, being told he’d never walk again.  If you see him now you’d never believe it! Like lots of Personal Trainers, he’s ridiculously positive – he’s the perfect guy to do it and I’m just the guy behind the scenes working out how to build the next obstacle. For more information visit www.rookeryfitfarm.com or call us on 07804289403.

A big thank you to Rookery Farm for taking the time to talk to us.

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