Free Range Farmer John Rohde: ‘Look Beyond the Label’

On the edge of the scenic Clare Valley, in the rural surrounds of Tarlee, South Australia’s only RSPCA Approved layer hen farm has been producing free-range eggs for more than half a century.

First started by Ian and Jill Rohde in the 1950s, the Rohde’s business has been kept in the family ever since. Now, John – Ian and Jill’s son – is at the helm alongside his wife Angela. Together with their four children, they’re proud to be part of a farm that has spanned across three generations.

How it all started
“We’ve always been a farming family,” explains John. “We were in livestock and cropping originally. Mum and Dad moved here because they wanted to generate a bigger income.”

When the farm first began, it was home to just a few thousand birds in a barn-laid, cage free production system. John and Angela built the first free-range shed in 1998.

“We had a bit of an inquiry – a supplier asked if we’d ever thought of going free range,” recalls John. “We looked up the animal welfare code, thought we could do it and started opening up our sheds.”

Today, Rohde’s has 14 free-range sheds and 60,000 hens.

A hen’s life at Rohde’s
Every morning, the shed’s flaps open automatically at around 9 or 10am and the hens set out for a day of adventure, returning to their sheds when it grows dark so that they can sleep.

“A chook does the same thing every day, they are creatures of habit,” says John. “They stay out for 8 hours and at night, they look to go to shelter. Some might not realise it’s getting late but the lights [of the shed] bring them in, as well as feed and drink.”

With its expansive range and shelter of trees, John believes that Rohde’s fits the mental image of how many people believe a free-range farm should look.

“Customers have a picture in their mind of how they perceive a free-range system,” he says. “And what they see here – birds under the trees, scratching – is pretty close to that. Our birds get out into the environment, explore, scratch, dustbathe. They eat, graze and wander around.”

Becoming RSPCA Approved
According to John, Rohde’s became involved with the RSPCA’s Approved Farming Scheme “a long time ago” and it occurred almost by chance. The farm has always been very welcoming to visitors that want to see what life is like for their hens and it was one such visitor that mentioned the RSPCA.

“They inquired – very casual and laidback – and said ‘you might be able get RSPCA Approval for this place’,” John remembers.

At Rohde’s, prioritising animal welfare is incredibly important. “If you don’t have good animal welfare, you don’t have a good housing or production system,” says John.

For him, becoming part of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme also seemed like a smart and strategic move.

“The egg market’s always been tough, but it’s never been as tough as it is now,” he says. “The RSPCA can guarantee good welfare for consumers that realise there’s a difference – and there is.”

When it comes to choosing eggs at the supermarket, John encourages customers to do their research to ensure they know a bit about the company offering the product. And John cites the RSPCA Approved logo as an easy way for shoppers to determine good welfare.

“If you’re buying free-range eggs, look beyond the label,” he says. “If you can’t find a website or a phone number, that says something. People should know what’s going on. We’re very open and honest, we have visitors. If you’re paying a premium, you should know what you’re getting. I don’t believe consumers should be misled.”

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