In the early 1990s, Rod Pope and his wife Jane were doing their best to support their young family. But, in the grips of a severe drought, Rod was struggling to make ends meet by farming wool and beef – a mainstay of his family’s livelihood for three generations.
Jane was an occupational therapist, but when she started selling eggs from the family’s backyard chooks to her colleagues to supplement their income, it wasn’t long before the demand exceeded their supply.
What happened next became family legend. One night, Rod came out of the shower and told Jane that they should get a hundred chooks. The next night, he suggested a thousand.
Today, the Popes have 20,000 birds with 10,000 farmed to the RSPCA’s animal welfare standards for their brand Farmer Rod’s Free Range Eggs. Farmer Rod’s is also now available at Harris Farm Market, which recently took the positive step of removing cage chicken eggs from its stores’ shelves.
Since the beginning, egg farming has been a family affair for the Popes.
“Our four children helped with the egg collecting and feeding when they were young and everything was done by hand,” says Rod. “Today, as they are young adults, they have more specific roles.”
Rod’s eldest daughter Georgina is in charge of branding and graphics. Keen to pursue the idea of stylish-looking egg cartons, it was Georgina who teamed up with creative production agency Entropico to create the modern, minimalist design of the Farmer Rod egg cartons. Although she is based in Europe, she loves being able to remain involved in the family business, and has many fond recollections of life growing up on the farm.
“We loved to help Dad collect the eggs,” she recalls. “We earned pocket money, so it was exciting to spend that on something when we went into town.”
Egg fights, going for rides in the mobile chook sheds (pulled along by Rod on a tractor) and quests to find the most unusually shaped eggs are just some of the other fun memories Georgina has of her childhood. Her siblings are also involved in the business in various ways. Bill returns to the farm from Sydney on weekends to help with building projects; Nellie, who is a uni student, runs a stall at Eveleigh Farmers Market on Saturdays and acts as the business’s marketing manager and customer contact in Sydney; while Ollie works full time on the farm, managing the daily routine, supervising egg packaging and assisting with deliveries.
While the term ‘free range’ might have you thinking that the hens on Rod’s farm spend all their time outdoors, all birds need shelter where they can rest, nest and lay their eggs. Originally, the farm made use of mobile sheds, which worked well when the weather conditions were ideal, but they weren’t as effective at protecting the hens from weather extremes.
After many years of fine-tuning, Rod has built and designed his own sheds, for the birds.
“Our farm can experience extreme weather conditions all in one day or sustained over many days,” he explains. “I wanted to design a shed that would not just provide shelter from those conditions, but also minimise the extremes without going down the path of full climate control and automation.”
The hens typically start their day with breakfast and a drink of water, with most preferring to lay their eggs inside before heading out for a day on the range, where they can dust bathe, flap and stretch their wings to their hearts’ content.
After researching various accreditation schemes, Rod decided that the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme had the highest animal welfare standards for free range egg farmers. The family and their team worked closely with the RSPCA for more than twelve months to ensure that the farm meets the Scheme’s detailed welfare standards.
“I am proud of achieving the accreditation,” says Rod. “I know the process has improved the welfare of our birds, and that is a satisfying feeling.”
To other farms interested in joining the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, Rod gives the following advice:
“Be passionate about joining,” he says. “Don’t try and take shortcuts. Work through the requirements meticulously and ask for help if needed.”
By becoming the only free range RSPCA Approved egg farm in New South Wales, the Popes are making sure that their hens can live the best life possible.
“Having lived all my life on a farm and having looked after animals from a young age, I grew up knowing the responsibility of caring for our livestock, and the respect they should be given,” says Rod. “The welfare of all animals domestic or wild should always be considered.”
“As human beings, it is our duty to responsibly care for everything that we use and consume,” adds Georgina. “Animal welfare should be something of value to everybody. Whether you consume animal products or not, we can all play a role. When the chooks are provided with comfortable conditions and are free to live as close to the wild a possible, then their eggs will contain all that goodness for our nutrition.”
What more? Life with hens: stories from farmers