Nick van Stekelenburg has something to crow about.
The Dignams Creek farmer says he has the cure for most, if not all, of our food production challenges thanks to the humble chook.
Nick believes, correctly managed, chickens are the way and the means for successful fruit and vegetable production: Reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilisers, fossil fuels and hard work, while providing abundant eggs and meat.
Nick calls his agricultural cure-all the Chicken Panacea.
Nick’s Chicken Panacea is based on the chicken tractor: a lightweight and mobile chook house, one metre wide and a few metres long. Each tractor keeps two to four chooks contained to do their work of pest control, weeding, and ploughing.
The metre wide vegetable beds make for easy planting and harvesting.
“For planting out, we use cardboard first then mulch over the top and then plant through the cardboard,” Nick said.
“By the time the plants have grown the cardboard has rotted away and been assimilated into the soil.”
Not all beds are planted out; some are direct sown with a green manure crop, which can be used as food for the chooks, harvested and sold for profit, or turned in to improve soil.
“I am selling organic greens for $20 a kilo, that is about the same you pay for conventional produce in the supermarket, but without the pesticides or all the embodied energy,” Nick said.
Nick said his Chicken Panacea wasn’t just about reducing embodied energy. Other reduced costs in his system were; time, labour, synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, and – especially – carbon.
“If we can grow our own food this way … we are sequestering carbon. Instead of whinging about climate change, or Gina Rinehart, Monsanto and what-not: we cut off their power supply, by not buying that stuff,” Nick said.
“I’m not using round-up or pesticides, I’m not eating blueberries grown in South America. I don’t get miserable about climate change – I am doing all I can do about it; putting carbon from the air into soil.”
Sure, carbon into the soil and eggs into the basket, but the Chicken Panacea is as much about increasing outputs as decreasing inputs.
“Early spring I get eggs of a variety I like, or I get a rooster of the variety I like to put over those hens I like best,” Nick said.
“That means my hens come into egg-production mode coming into winter, when everyone else’s chooks are going off lay for winter.”
Although Nick charges seven dollars per dozen eggs, that barely covers the cost of the chook’s organic feed supplement: “The profit is in the soil building they do”.
Of course, only the hens lay eggs; the surplus of rooster are killed for meat. Nick said it was important to know how to kill an animal with respect and without causing it suffering or pain.
“It’s like John Champagne says: ‘the roosters have a very good life that ends with one very bad day’.”
With the vegies, eggs and meat sorted, Nick got thinking about some Chicken Panacea in the orchard. After some years of tinkering, he developed the modular hex-cell for his fruit trees.
Each hex-cell is a domed and netted structure over a dwarf fruit tree. Openings at the base of each hex-cell enable a chicken tractor to be plugged in so the chooks can still work around the protected fruit tree.
“All the competition is removed from the tree, and it adds fertiliser. But not just fertiliser, it activates the soil biology; it gets the microbes humming,” Nick said.
“That’s where the Chicken Panacea differs from conventional farming, where the soil is just there to hold the plant up while synthetic fertilised and pesticides are used.
“In this system, with diversity, you allow things to come up. You get strong, vigorous plants suited to your environment,” he said.
Nick has used his modular hex-cells on a hard, compacted slope. Within each hex-cell the chooks push the better soil down the hex-cell, creating scallops of rich, water-retaining soil.
“At the bottom edge of each cell, where the soil accumulates, you can put in your perennials like potatoes and asparagus,” Nick said.
He said it was all too easy – “it takes about ten minutes to mark out and put up one of these hex-cells” – leaving Nick plenty of time to dream up future improvements.
Looking down the rough-pastured hillside he said, “There will be food cells everywhere here; what I have done so far is just the tip of the iceberg”.
Given Nick already runs more than 60 chooks in 14 tractors, things might get interesting indeed.