YOU'VE seen Freckle Farm eggs, ham or bacon on menus around the Mackay region - but do you know the story behind what put that egg on your plate?
Deb McLucas and Rob Bauman run the innovative family-owned farm near Eton, 40km south west of Mackay, and are helping drive the "paddock to plate" experience, and even inspiring other farmers to follow suit.
Ms McLucas will be a guest speaker at the Farm, Feast and Film dinner at Capella Thursday night, talking farm diversification and what makes their business a foodie favourite.
"The audience will be mostly farmers from the Central Highlands regions (and it's) thinking about ways of farming and how that area can diversify," she said. "My husband and I still own a grain farm at Dysart... we started out as conventional farmers in the commodity grain and this has been an interesting journey for us to establish a business that's quite intensive and we sell our product direct to customers.
"We'll be sharing our experience on how our journey has unfolded and the challenges we've faced."
She said one of the best things about their business is the opportunity to form relationships with people buying their produce.
"We chat with our customers at the (Greater Whitsunday Farmers Markets) and our farm tours and have that direct feedback about our produce," Ms McLucas said.
"It's been a learning curve for us, there's a lot of extra skills you need in selling produce direct to customers.
"Farmers aren't always keen on that - they can be people who enjoy their own company while being resourceful and independent. My husband often jokes he loves the animals and it's the humans he has problems with," she laughed.
Trying new things
She said some farmers preferred the conventional method of producing the commodity, see it leave the farm gate and that's the end of their involvement.
For Freckle Farm, it doesn't stop there. Ms McLucas and her husband Rob have to follow up with retailers, do the marketing and sales, through to dealing with the odd customer complaint about packaging.
"Many farming families have a husband and wife involved in the business so in our case, Rob's the farmer who loves farming and I manage the marketing and sales, so if you've got two people and skills in that area that's how it can work," she said.
While she did study a "bit of marketing" at university, they were mostly learning as they went, doing short courses or Googling things to learn more and trying new things.
"A lot of our marketing is on social media now which is fantastic, it's a great resource to be using and because we have a good relationship with customers a lot of it is word of mouth," Ms McLucas said.
"Building our brand, you need to have the integrity, you have to deliver that every week and ensure you deliver every week a high quality product, service and the customers are happy... you can't teach that at uni."
So with other farms and businesses opening up their doors for farm tours across the Mackay region, is Freckle Farm inspiring others to follow their lead?
"I hope so," Ms McLucas said.
"We always get people along to our farm tours who are coming because they want to do something different with their block and so, yeah, that's an indication to us that people are definitely looking to diversify.
"And we've had other people who make the time and come and speak to us, separate from farm tours, and we had somebody only three weeks ago have a look at our farm; they were looking at doing something similar out at Collinsville."
She said farms and other operations in the Mackay region could all learn from each other.
"No two places are the same. It's a case of seeing what's out there and what's working; you can always find something that will speak to you," Ms McLucas said.
"You have to be interested in what you're doing. If Rob didn't love pigs and chooks it wouldn't be much fun for him.
"It's pretty full on. When it's really hot and you're out there fencing to move animals onto fresh pasture you've got to really love what you're doing because it is hard work and you might lose your enthusiasm."
Story behind the food
Freckle Farm has been opening its gates to monthly farm tours for four years now, and it's still a popular attraction for tourists and Mackay locals to see where their eggs, beef, ham and bacon comes from.
"It's becoming trendy for people to know where there food is coming from," Ms McLucas said.
"We're starting to really question our food system because many people either have illness or injury or behaviour problems with children and are starting to question the role food plays in creating those things, so that's where a lot of the interest in the tours comes from."
A lady aged in her 60s told her after a farm tour recently, "I've never really thought about where the food I'm eating comes from, but after today I'm going to take more time to look at the origin of the food I eat".
"If people get a real experience of where food can be grown in a healthy environment that's kind on the animals and kind on the environment, it can be a real awakening for some people," Ms McLucas said.
"And for kids, a real journey for them as well in understanding what is really food and what a free range egg really is... people are really good at picking that stuff up."
Local produce in local restaurants
She said many Mackay restaurants who use their produce have received positive feedback and real interest in what people are eating.
"Because you're often paying more going out to restaurants for an experience it's good that 1) it's amazing in flavour and quality and then 2) they get the back story, that the animals are raised with welfare in mind and an ethical approach and no chemicals... that's a bonus," Ms McLucas said.
"Not only are they enjoying the meal but they're getting this other higher reward that makes people feel good to support that."
So what is it like touring Freckle Farm?
"What we're aiming to do with our tours is to give people the experience of what it's like on a real working farm. On our farm it's all about the animals," Ms McLucas said.
The first stop on the Freckle Farm tour is the baby chickens.
"We see where they start their life; they're delicate and need protection from the elements, everyone has an opportunity to hold a baby chicken and we talk about the process of raising them before they start laying eggs at six months of age," Ms McLucas said.
"It's a real highlight for many as that's the first time they've held a farm animal... plus they're very cute."
Next, the group will walk through the farm and paddock where they get to feed the Berkshire pigs - the farm has 150 of them.
"We'll usually have baby piglets and again people get a chance to see them... they can't touch them and they aren't as cuddly - mums tend to get upset when you pick up their babies but everyone gets to feed the pigs," Ms McLucas explains.
"Then we show them how they live in a free range environment. They have mobile shelters and you see what their pens are like, where they go during the day and night."
The tour then passes the laying hens - when the baby chicks are old enough to get to production age, they get houses to live out in the pastures.
"We show people the mechanics of how they lay, how we collect the eggs and how we manage our fencing and how everything has to move onto fresh pasture," Ms McLucas said.
"Our system is based on animals having access to fresh pasture - we constantly move the animals so we demonstrate how that happens. There's usually lots of questions and interest in laying hens because people have their own backyard chooks."
The 3000 Freckle Farm chickens lay about 250 eggs a year each.
"It takes about 28 hours for a chook to lay an egg, so we won't ever get an egg a day from a chook," Ms McLucas said. "You'll get about, depending on time of year, five eggs a week out of one chook."
Tour-goers will also see their 130 beef cattle roaming the 265-hectare farm.
"They're chemical free and organic, they're a bit different to your average beef herd because we use Nguni bulls," Ms McLucas said.
"They're a very rare breed, they come from South Africa and are good eating quality, really hardy and adapted to our tropical conditions with parasites and flies that would normally require treatment with chemicals but we use a Brahman cow herd to cross them.
"A great thing about Nguni, they have the most beautiful hide, like in the documentaries in South Africa the tribesmen keep these cattle and they're spotty and have horns and are unique so that's really interesting for people as well."
The farm tour ends with a ride on the hay bale trailer back to the main house.
Freckle Farm's first farm tour for the year will be Sunday, March 26.
To book, visit www.frecklefarm.com.au/public-farm-tours
Farm, Feast and Film: Stories on Farm Diversification
Freckle Farm's Deb McLucas will be one of three guest speakers at 'Farm, Feast and Film': Stories on Farm Diversification tonight.
Guests will have a three-course dinner featuring local produce, while listening to guest speakers sharing their success stories of diversification.
The night will finish with a film from across the globe 'Polyfaces - A world of many choices' - dubbed the world's most innovative farmer by Time Magazine.
Also speaking will be farmers from Dawson Valley Free Range, Baralaba and Rosegum Alpacas at Springsure.
When: Thursday, March 16
Time: 5.30pm till late
Where: Bridgeman Park Sporting Complex, Capella
Tickets: $85 per person
While in Capella you could take the opportunity to attend the Future Food and Fibre conference or just come along to the dinner.
To book, visit www.chrrup.org/conference-information/farm-feast-film-dinner
The Future Food and Fibre Conference will be held March 16-17 and is aimed at innovative and forward thinking farmers and graziers who are poised to take advantage of opportunities opening up for Australian agriculture.
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