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Approximately an hour out of Port Elizabeth the Addo Elephant Park unfolds as a vast wilderness of lush synergy between coast and bush and set in the middle of this beautiful Eastern Cape stretch is the poignant beauty of The Sundays Rivers Valley. Nestled deeply within this too is an incredible story of an organic farm.
The Sundays Rivers Valley is a soul quenching sight on the eye, of purple hued mountains hugging a rolling blanket of citrus orchards centered around the Sundays River. Apart from being well known for one of its largest big 7 game parks and its concentration of elephant herds, it is the largest citrus producing region in the country too.
This is much due to an irrigation system developed in the 1920’s alongside the Sundays River to target British settlers on smallholdings, this region has become a high intense agricultural area for citrus and a majestic delight for big game lovers wanting to experience expanses of African terrain.
This landscape coaxes weary eyes to roam across green expanses of bush and coastal fauna and flora both, to the mountains surrounding them, with row upon row of orange and yellow citrus orchards.
It is rumoured in these parts that elephants have a particular soft spot for citrus and that oranges here remain their favorite fruit, stories abound of elephants reaching in to any available scenario with oranges in, to grab them. Whether or not those stories are true and despite being drenched with memories of elephants in the Addo Park yesterday, it is the memory of some of the most content chickens I’ve yet seen that informs the motivation for this article. This is what drew me down there in the first place to find out what all the fuss was around Eddie Ferreira’s pastured eggs.
It has been quite a surprise and a deep joy both, to be writing the story about one of the best pastured farms for hens – as much as I am writing about a farm that stands out in this region for doing citrus differently. It was a blessed surprise to not be there to write about elephants or the Addo National Park or to be there to tell an ordinary story of the citrus legends of the region. What I was there to do rather was to tell you about a rather different story of this region that I believe in time will re-define this area. Because the Sunday Rivers Valley has so much to offer and yet quietly amongst the regular tales of what this region is famous for, Johnny and Eddie Ferreira are responsible for something vital and new being born there which is going to impact us all in our organic lives.
Eddie’s Eggs – a farm that I’ll boldly state as ‘beyond organic’ is a pioneering partnership between the possibilities that occur when one group of farmers decides to do organic properly and creates a caliber of pasture that makes the work of a farmer like Eddie possible. The relationship between grass, fertile organic soil and the potential it offers to give animals the healthiest pasture possible laid evident here in such peaceful simplicity, you wonder how it is that farms like these are the rarities they are.
The Soga (Sundays Organic Growers Association) group of certified organic citrus farms are situated here. Many of you will already be familiar with the Soga logo branded on freezers becoming more and more readily available in retail stores of bottled organic orange and lemon juice and pops. The availability of organic citrus juice now an annual reality because of this farm. Yet the story doesn’t begin and end there because Eddie Ferreira has added another dimension to these orchards with his hens. Eddie’s eggs first appeared on Jozi shelves on Friday past week when we first had them up. The packaging self-explanatory enough to let you know why they would be featured in our store to start with, yet words that cannot at all replace the effect of actually walking the farm with Eddie and experiencing the magic of it.
Eddie and Johnny Ferreira are brothers who through a series of health and life challenges both got to a place where they were passionate about the relationship between food and health and living a vocation centered around the things in life that matter most.
After the pain of losing their sister to a cancer rather swiftly, the urge to design a life around farming healthier food divorced from the chemical reality of conventional agriculture and living a meaningful lifestyle has become a defining anchor for this family. As with all great tragedies and life altering losses, there is ever a gift in them that can give birth to treasure. This family hasn’t walked an easy road to find the peace and sense that they now have on this farm, like all pioneering paths that come with challenge, it is only the courage of following heart and belief no matter what it costs that makes people of integrity stick around long enough to carve out a new road and this is what this family did and what they represent.
They have done the long miles involved in opening up a road less travelled and are now at a place where the fruits of their labor and the direction of what has become most important to them, has organic products becoming readily available to those seeking superior nutrition from farms that care to give it. This is a family and farm whose journey offers us a deep gift. What struck me much about this great farming family, was that, they rise to their challenges and they do things properly when they do, without compromise and with unwavering commitment.
The way the story is told, it seems like Johnny had been convincing his brother Eddie to start an egg project amongst these organic citrus orchards for some time. When Eddie took up the challenge, it was never going to be a certain one.
With the market for organic eggs not being at a convincing place in South Africa yet and dedicated trusted organic retailers being in short supply, getting the logistics to work with the distance between this region and the cities and the additional costs involved in egg production that insists on using organic maize and soy wasn’t going to easy or certain. Yet they stuck with it and are set to become one of the leading farms for truly pastured chicken eggs that I see as ‘beyond organic’ because it ticks so many other boxes. Every single one important to the conscious consumer in fact.
These chickens are raised in one of the most beautiful environments for laying hens, I’ve yet seen and heaven knows that the joy of my work is that I only get to see the best of them. When it comes to pasturing chickens, it is no easy feat for any farmer to have enough pasture to raise chickens meaningfully on a broad range of grass from organically managed soil. Why it’s only for the committed. When I’ve seen farms and how difficult it is, and trust me it is extraordinarily difficult to get the ideal environment for chickens, that image that is represented in the glossy marketing pictures of fake free range, the one we hold as ideal in our minds, is actually rather elusive. Yet the ideal of what it could be and what we would want it to be, is what I found on this farm.
Anybody who has farmed chickens knows about their extraordinary capacity to demolish anything under foot. Once you put chickens on pasture, they are going to happily pluck about and decimate any foliage they set their pecking sights on and proper pasture management in this context means you have to have enough space to continuously move them so that their grazing can recover. That part is labor intensive and requires vast tracts of land that many farmers just don’t have.
The expanse of the Soga citrus orchards offers up an incredible solution to this challenge. They have done this farm on scale without compromise and as a result there is unlimited orchard grazing space for chickens. I believe that at capacity they would be able to supply most of the country – without – compromising on the ideal pasturing environment that this relationship between Soga and Eddie’s Eggs offers.
Each area that gets fenced off for them to pasture in is 1500m2. In each of these sections, 300 chickens rush out of their night-time roosting caravans in the morning to pasture on for the day. 300 chickens given unlimited access each day to 1500m2 of lush green grazing under the shade of organic citrus trees is idyllic – yet here – its real.
It’s a sight for sore eyes and the sound of contented cooing from these hens left an imprint on my soul. It’s not just the hens that really want to be there, when you’re there, you don’t much feel like leaving. Eddie talks about a family member that likes to take a chair and sit in the orchards with the hens and a glass of wine as she finds it such an especially happy thing to do. I get it, it is that content and soulful a scene that to have the gift of time to sit there just with them in the peace and beauty of it would be time spent in something even better than meditation. These hens make you feel their peace.
There is nothing like a contented hen. I don’t say that lightly, there is a particular maternal gentleness that reaches right into you when you are around a hen at peace with her world. They become the most affectionate, relaxed curious friends and when I watched Eddie describe the sense of fulfillment he gets being with them in this daily ritual, the warm look in his eye told me how it makes his own soul nest in the knowledge that the direction he took his life into, was the right one.
Before receiving that sense of satisfaction I do when I see perfect clean grazing for animals and getting into the technical detail of that, it was the contentment and almost ideal conditions of their daily grazing and their very palpable relaxed happiness with it, that left the most lasting impression on me on this visit. As much as seeing how the hen’s contentment seems to serve as a salve on Eddie, a person who knows much about what it costs to live without it after having reached a burn out period in his life prior with the burdens of running his own business. He is a man who clearly has reached a place where he lives with pockets of quiet harmony in his day, and the hen’s contentment mirrors that. You can’t easily discern who is more content with the sense and peace of this arrangement, the hens or Eddie. I left certain that they give it to each other, this is a symbiotic relationship of sense and magic. Every good farmer has this with his animals. Every good farmer can be found this way, they have a synergy with the peculiar character of the animals that they serve as custodians of. It is a very blessed hen that has Eddie Ferreira as their custodian and the Soga orchards as their home.
Wandering about the orchards with them, they are as at peace with you as a pack of family dogs, they walk with you, curiously peck at your feet and follow you about utterly relaxed while they choose whether to eat at the food buckets out for them, or tap into the soil to pick at the lush array of grasses or set about making themselves a dust bath. These chickens have choice – they have the space and time to explore it – the freedom that comes from that – and they know it.
There is no tension about what they’re going to do next and the racket that comes out of the mobile caravans in the morning as they hear evidence that it’s time to be set out for the day, is every bit as heart-warming as their peace when they land in their paradise. And a cacophony of noise at that.
When the doors open on their mobile caravans – they are all gathered squawking and yelling with excitement and poised for flight to get out to their daily pasture heaven. I can’t say with any honesty that I’ve ever wanted to be a farm animal, yet, arriving from the harried pace of being a mother running her own business in a relentless to-do city, I was envious of what those hens have. I marveled at a thought I had there, that being one of Eddie’s hens for a day would be a beautiful place to be.
What is equally special about their grazing terrain amongst organic citrus – is the perfect shade it offers. This is a difficulty I have often seen on chicken farms, to find grazing sufficient that also gives good shade. Chickens aren’t great in an African Summer’s intense heat and the natural covering of the citrus gives them ample of it. Eddie says that they have irrigation through-out the orchards and will often choose on days when it is supremely hot to switch it on to give the chickens additional relief. That is a certain type of chicken paradise.
The other outstanding feature that quite blew me away, was the range of grasses they eat and have within these orchards. With this being a certified organic farm, we have a focus on soil fertility and you see the glorious evidence of this all around the groves. Layers of mulch to keep the soil’s moisture in – that characteristic of an organic farm, mulch everywhere and rich, dark soil with moisture underneath.
So out of this well looked after soil the grasses grown for ground cover and for the chickens are lush, brilliant green hue and nutrient dense. With this being organic pasture, we have no herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilizers and well managed nutrient rich alive soil which is why these grasses are as outstandingly lush as they are and I’d hazard a good guess why the shells on these eggs are distinctly hard. They don’t break easily – the shell quality firm evidence of the superior nutrition these hens are getting. Levels of calcium on good green grazing like this will do this. Equally though, the quality of the feed and the vitamin and mineral supplement given to these chickens will be contributing to this.
It is this blanket cover of endless clover, lucerne, wild oats and kikuye that these chickens decimate in each 4-week cycle of being pastured on two 1500m2 camps at a time. If I want to really know how much pasture grazing a chicken is actually getting, it’s the easiest thing to see on a farm. When somebody shows me lush patches of green and insists the chickens are pasturing but there is no evidence of a prior demolished patch that has been left to recover after the chickens have eaten it down to roots, or talk of how chickens are rotated amongst camps that require regeneration, I know I’m dealing with a rather loose interpretation of the truth. It is far more likely that the chickens are rather eating indoors all day with a token open door to a patch of land that they aren’t getting much off. That’s not much compelling to anybody looking for the ultimate egg from a ‘pastured’ chicken, as we are wanting to know that the chickens are actually getting a lot of their diet from greens and scavenging for insects and worms as is their habit in their natural environment.
I’ve seen many ‘free range’ farms where the feed mix is predominant and you see an outside camp that chickens apparently go out into during the day that is little less than a sandy patch with no outdoor grazing. I always find that depressing and why free range just isn’t a meaningful enough term anymore.
Whilst a chicken cannot get adequate nutrition off grasses alone, being an omnivore that requires a good balance of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals, watching the degree to which they will demolish greens tells us that it is an important part of what they need and desire.
Most chicken feeds will include maize and soy, a good addition of additional vitamins and minerals and green grazing that will include insects. You can make up adequate feeds to produce an egg without natural grazing but I don’t believe they can ever be comparable to what they get off the inclusion of a large part coming off happily pecking on insects and eating grasses all day as well.
It was a delight to see Eddie’s prior camps decimated to bare soil being rehabilitated while they get moved to a new lush 1500m2 square of green citrus grazing orchard. We walked around a camp that was being ‘rested’ and evidence that the chickens had dealt with it – proper – abounded. They had eaten everything.
This is quite a striking feature of how efficiently this relationship works between the hens and the orchards. With the chickens stamping their manure into the soil while they mow up the grasses, they are endlessly encouraging new growth and soil fertility. This the beauty of what chickens add to soil – they are adding their nutrient rich manure deep into the soil while they endlessly stimulate new growth. The best organic farms are always mixed farms like this where animals are kept in relationship to soil and plant growth, as is the natural way. The manure from their roosting night-time mobile camps is collected and returned to the compost heap to fertilize the soil once again.
The grasses grow back in no time – lush – and the cycle repeats. The Soga Organic citrus farm growing areas are vast so the grazing in this way is endless, one of the most exciting farming models I have yet seen for laying hens in this country.
When it comes to the feed mix, Eddie has something very special going. What an utter delight to see Bertie Coetzee’s organic maize in his feeding area. For those of you who don’t yet know Bertie from Lowerlands Farm, Bertie is the farmer who has taken over the work of the pioneer for organic heritage wheat, James Moffett and is now growing the organic wheat and maize in the Northern Cape region of Prieska. He’s also doing mind bending organic wine but that’s a story for another day.
James and Bertie are also the reason I’m building a bakery. Because of their work we can have a bakery with everything for our eatery and store only using organic wheat. They have changed the landscape of bread and its history in South Africa as much as I think they will be responsible for it being more possible in the future for farmers to go the full organic route with animals with access to organic maize being more readily available. The maize is sourced from Bertie and the soy for the protein content, Eddie has had to source from Zambia.
With an organic philosophy being built to get the eggs certified as organic, the maize and soy have to be non-GM and verified as such. Testing the feed is done by Professor Chris Viljoen at the University of Free State. Eddie so warmly describes the flood of relief when he got his first certificate back that confirmed the feed to be entirely non-GM, always a nerve racking time for a committed farmer as GMO’s contaminate so much of life, a source of great misery and turmoil for the organic hearts and souls amongst us. It isn’t easy to get a 100% pass on non- GM input. Receiving that confirmation that your sourcing has been that successful, that GM content hasn’t gotten in anywhere, is a very proud moment for a farmer like Eddie who has put so much into making sure that his eggs are ready for organic certification in the near future.
While we are talking about chicken’s diets, I am becoming a little alarmed at how people are asking for ‘grass fed’ chicken eggs only and suddenly demonizing all maize and soy. Maize is a great food for chickens as well as soy. You cannot raise chickens on grass alone as it will not provide them with the carbohydrate and protein content alone or the full gamut of minerals and vitamins their omnivore constitutions need. A grass-fed entirely philosophy is what we want and look for in herbivores who do not digest grains well. It is important for cows and lamb, not for chickens. Chickens are omnivores and require a broader diversity of food to make up a complete diet. People are quite rightly being told – more and more so by Doctors and nutritionists wanting to get worrying food out of the healing diets of those recovering from serious illness, to find animal protein where GM maize and soy are not in the mix.
When maize and soy are non-GM and organic, they are perfect for chicken feed, it is the genetically modified versions we reject as part of an organic philosophy not maize and soy from non GM seed.
The other x factor component that I think is as responsible for the health of these eggs being so visible on the quality of the shells alone is the Fertrell nutri-balance range of vitamins and minerals favored in organic feed mixes in the States. A chicken feed addition raised to such notoriety after Joel Salatin, the revolutionary US based organic farmer who gave out his perfect chicken feed recipe included the Fertrell mix, citing his reasons as being that this mix is a natural source of minerals and vitamins that he believes chickens can far better digest than chemically derived ones.
Eddie, who isn’t cutting any short-cuts to get the very best for these chicken, is using the Fertrell recipe for his chicken feed mixes as well as the Fertrell nutri-balance naturally derived vitamins and minerals.
Something very interesting for me was how these chickens deal with this ideal range of cuisine they get every-day. When they are let out of their roosting mobile tractors for the morning, they fly out into the pasture with fervor. It’s a flurry of sqwuarking delight and a fluster of feathers and as they land onto the heaven they’re accustomed to spending their days on, the red food buckets are being walked into the orchards. The sight of this is something you won’t easily forget. The hens run after Eddie carrying the buckets. They almost look like a congregation fondly following their Priest with religious rapture. They do that chicken run that is so delightful to watch that my daughter and I melted at with affection and they clamor around the buckets. For a short while. After a couple of minutes, after they’ve helped themselves to feed, they very quickly settle down and choose to pasture on the grass rather. I found that captivating.
I’ve always wondered what chickens would rather choose if left to their own instinct if they had their ideal diet all around them of grains, grasses as well as soil rich in worms and insects. This age-old question for me was answered on Eddie’s chicken wonderland where they have it all and also, very importantly, know it is available everyday so they aren’t in any survival stress. They are in a place of luxurious chicken choice which they know is there every day – and this creates a very definite sense of confidence, security and peace in these hens that was so palpable that you couldn’t help but be affected by it.
The hustling around the feed buckets is over surprisingly quickly and then what they want to do is mull about in the orchards, and they do. The pecking and scratching at grass and soil and waddling off to make dust baths is what they choose to do, very quickly. If I watched them for a whole day I’d be able to see how often they choose the bucket feed but they seem so relaxed about it, knowing that it’s going to be there all day.
Looking at the state of an orchard after they have done their work on it and seeing how they eat almost every last shoot of green to the dust, it is evident that the grass and insects are highly prized by them. I loved just bearing witness to a place where hens have it this good and seeing them in such a rich, natural environment with so much choice. Thinking this very thought, I looked across at Eddie and felt a strong sense of wonder at what he has actually ended up achieving here and so grateful for his journey and what it is going to mean to so many of us that want to choose food from farmers of this caliber giving animals a life this good. The resultant caliber of egg we get on our plates because of this.
Something that also stood out for me as a very unique memory is the difference between the way they behave around food that they know is so rich and abundant versus how chickens can be when they’re not. I’ve seen chickens going utterly manic at feed times when there isn’t this kind of pasture and choice around. The lack of that survival stress has such impact. These chickens are so secure, they walk amongst you totally at ease as if there is nothing to fear, which is quite remarkable.
Chickens are predated upon ferociously in outdoors environments and are very skittish to threat. If humans are rough or food is insecure or conditions not so cosy, you’ll see it in a chicken in a type of skittishness and caution that was altogether absent on this farm with these hens. There has never been any rough handling of these hens, the absolute trust and comfort they have around humans was evident. They like humans and they trust them, the way hens behave humans always tells you that. These hens were bossy and confidant and defined for me by a lack of fear of anything. That is quite ‘un hen-like’. Hurt a hen once or put them in insecure environments and they can be defined by their skittishness and caution, not these ones. They were defined by their peace and confidence.
My daughter whose fate having a Mother who is a food activist has had to endure many farm visits that she might not have chosen to go on otherwise said that she has never had such fun with chickens or ever been able to ‘bond’ with a chicken, yet on this farm she had a happy time playing with them and felt like she was really ‘hanging out’ with them. She said Eddie’s hens were the most friendly hens she’d ever been around, she felt like they liked her and she liked them back – out of the mouths of babes.
Chickens like to feel safe at night. That’s the time where predators are out for them and as the sun goes down, Eddie describes how they naturally start walking towards their mobile roosting houses. Chickens internal clocks are so closely aligned with light which is why battery operations manipulate it to make them lay more to both confuse and exploit their natural rhythms. A practice so sad and a cruelty that becomes more vivid when you see chickens just being in natural relationship to their own cycles through natural light.
At sun-set they head off the orchards to seek an indoor environment of warmth and security to roost and they fly in and start perching for the night. Eddie describes the tranquility of the hush that falls over the mobile roosting barns as they settle down. It’s the first time of the day where there is utter chicken ‘still’. While they’re contentedly plucking about the orchards all day, they aren’t quiet, they are constantly softly coo-cooing – one of the most contenting sounds to listen to, that of a happy – at peace – chicken.
In the morning however, when the sun comes up – the din and racket that comes from their roosting barns reaches fever pitch while they are laying eggs and responding to the rising sun which dictates that they do. Frenetically laying eggs, as if to get it all over with so that they can get to the best part of their day, flying out of their mobile barns to the orchards. They are not much peaceful when they are doing this.
As they hear the clamor of the buckets and the care-taking team who literally sleep in a caravan with them attached to the mobile barn to protect them at night – they start up a fuss of noise and racket. A hen is a feisty little soul when she’s excited and an instrument of peace when she’s fulfilled.
These are their daily rituals and their contentment seems to be intricately linked to the security of it on this beautiful farm, their daily cycle of full nourishment, beautiful pasture, places to dust bath and a safe haven at night provides precisely that.
Eddie Ferreria is soon going to be known as a pioneer in the organic egg farming space, this farm is an honor to have spent time on and a gift to the SA food (R)evolution at large. This farm is large enough in scope to do this properly and sustainably into the future without ever having to compromise on the standard which means a great deal of happiness for the numbers of hen that can live in this paradise.
For those of us always on the search for these special farms that connect us to nutrient dense healthy food, this one is gold dust.
A huge thank you to Eddie Ferreira and his happy hens as well as the founding members of the Soga farms – Paul Marais, Johnny Ferreira, Lionel and Marius Jurgens and Keith Finnemore for making this possible and risking such a great venture that is going to become a meaningful contributor to the availability of organic produce in South Africa.
Eddies’ Eggs I am delighted to say will now feature in our store and I know they are going to become some of the most favorite in South Africa and this farm deserves this.
To all of those of you on the conscious path who value these farms, this is a farm you want to know and when you pick up a packet of Eddie’s Eggs, know that you’re investing in not only one of the most nutrient dense eggs available but also in an idyllic world for the hens that laid them for you and you’ll be thanking a farmer who makes this all possible. What a great connection and gift. Excited and honored to start the journey with this very special farm.
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