Free range eggs in demand amid COVID-19

Free range eggs in demand amid COVID-19

Coronavirus
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The McMillans lost two thirds of their flock after recent bushfires.

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REBUILD: Joscelin and Tom McMillan, Bega Valley Eggs, Bemboka, NSW, with Amahli, 3, and Koa, 10 months, lost two thirds of their flock days after bushfires tore through the region.

REBUILD: Joscelin and Tom McMillan, Bega Valley Eggs, Bemboka, NSW, with Amahli, 3, and Koa, 10 months, lost two thirds of their flock days after bushfires tore through the region.

Joscelin and Tom McMillan were still getting the hang of their newly-acquired free range chook operation when bushfires tore through their Bega Valley property on New Year's Eve.

Only four months earlier, the couple had bought Bega Valley Eggs, a business which supplied independent supermarkets and cafes and restaurants up the NSW south coast.

While Mr McMillan and the landlords of the property defended the homes and chooks from the blaze on December 31, 2019, it wasn't until a week after the fire they felt the real devastation.

"All of our pastures, every single paddock was burnt, but we managed to save the flock of hens, the sheds and the houses on the property," Ms McMillan said.

"But in the days and weeks after the fires we lost two thirds of the flock presumably to smoke and stress."

Within 10 days the 5000-hen operation had been reduced to just 2000 birds.

"It was devastating because we'd done so much work to save them at the time and then to come back a week later and find more and more hens dead each morning was very distressing," Ms McMillan said.

With a third of the flock of Hyline hens remaining, the McMillans vowed to rebuild and launched a crowd-funding campaign to ensure the business would not have to close its doors.

"We assumed government funding was going to take a long time to receive and we knew we'd be in trouble with the amount of hens we'd lost," Ms McMillan said.

The idea behind the crowd funding campaign would split the profits evenly between the McMillans' egg operation and the business' 35 stockists, many which had been affected by the fires.

"Because we're in such a tourism region, every one of our stockists has been affected, directly or indirectly," Ms McMillan said.

This week the campaign ticked over $60,000, with each of the stockists to receive a share of the profits and Bega Valley Eggs to retain $30,000 to expand its operation to include an on-farm processing plant.

At the same time the campaign was running, the McMillans struck some luck when they sought to replenish their flock.

"Our supplier has a four-to-six-month waiting period on hens but we got really lucky and made a phone call and found there was 3000 excess hens which is exactly what we needed," Ms McMillan said.

"We were still cleaning up when we were preparing to get the new flock so it was full on there for a while."

The business produces about 900 dozen eggs weekly and when its new flock hits the lay withinmonths, the operation will be back to providing 2300 dozen eggs to the wholesale and retail market weekly.

Egg increase as COVID-19 spreads

As supermarkets struggle to meet demand and keep shelves stocked in the wake of the coronavirus, Ms McMillan said she had noticed an increased demand for free range eggs.

"We're already at capacity but now we've got a waiting list of 50 people who basically want to buy eggs directly or have them in their shop as a retail product," Ms McMillan said.

In recent weeks the business has expanded to offer eggs direct to the public, which includes bulk deliveries and opportunities for buyers' groups.

"Our eggs have a six-week expiry so it is a product you can buy a substantial amount of, share it with a neighbour, and you're set for a month," Ms McMillan said.

"If we can stay healthy we will probably benefit from the coronavirus because if supermarket shelves remain empty, people who would normally shop in there will look for alternatives."

Life after fires

Ms McMillan said the south coast fires, which burnt half-a-million hectares and destroyed hundreds of homes, had brought the community together.

"It's changed in a positive way and I think people have become more aware our operation is here because a lot of the people in the area had never heard about us before," Ms McMillan said.

"We had people helping us with distribution after the fires, people have contributed to the fundraiser and the whole vibe in the valley has changed since the fires."

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