Derek and Fiona Smith run a mixed enterprise operation on “Kenilworth”, their property outside Guyra. But eggs and cattle are just the very beginning of what’s produced and perfected at Kenilworth … read on to find how this couple are working hard to improve soil quality for our future generations.
Hi Fiona and Derek. What’s the history behind your property in Guyra, Kenilworth?
Derek’s family have owned Kenilworth since the 1930s, and the original house was four rooms with dirt floors plus an open verandah, where Derek’s father as a young boy used to sleep. Derek’s grandparents built the three-bedroom Californian Bungalow in 1947, and we’ve added to it since 2006.
Derek and I married in 1984, and we moved into the old home and started our improvements on the farm since then. Fences were in disrepair and there were virtually not trees left, as the property was cleared during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Now we have been trying to put some of them back, plus fencing and water troughs to make the property more drought resistant.
What’s a little of your personal history when it comes to farming?
Derek is third generation on Kenilworth and has worked with sheep, cattle, potato and vegetable farming and now layer hens. His expertise has been his study on soils, how they function and how to get the best out of them by balancing the chemistry to improve the physical and biological functions to help increase profitability. This became possible when he went back to university to complete his degree in Farm Management and specialised in soil management. He did this because he couldn’t find a good soil consultant for his crops, and he knew there were some missing links. He then has gone on to study the Kinsey/Albrecht methods to Rebuild Soil Fertility.
I grew up in inner-western Sydney, and couldn’t wait to get out of the place. My parents used to take us outback when we were kids on camping trips, and I realised that there was more to this great country than just Sydney. I went to Ag College and did agricultural business studies when I was 18 and met Derek, where we became good friends. I followed him back to Guyra, intending to stay for a short break and then be on my way, but I fell in love with the place. I was used to large animals, as I was a horse rider but that was all I knew. I had a lot to learn – and quick.
Tell us a bit about the property …
Kenilworth is situated outside the township of Guyra and has rich basalt soils with a good water supply. The property has been improved through the generations with improved pastures, fencing, water troughs in each paddock, sheds and yards, plus dams enlarged and trees planted.
It was always a very productive 300 acres, and over time we had increased livestock numbers to make it possible to earn a decent income, but the continued dry over the last few years has had an impact on that productivity. Everything you have done in the past just has to sit and wait for the rain and the rest to recover. It will rain again; it’s just that I haven’t seen Guyra this desperate in my 35 years of being here.
You produce wholesome and delicious eggs on your farm. What types of hens do you stock – and what’s the main difference between the eggs you produce and many other eggs currently on the market?
We buy our ISA Brown hens from Bifida in Tamworth. They’re lovely, friendly girls, good layers and do OK in the great outdoors.
The way we run our hens makes us quite different to most egg farms. On our labelling you need to have how many hens per hectare – we are approx. 125 hens/Ha, where most of the bigger free range farms are between 1,500 -10,000 hens/Ha. Our hens have three major jobs to do on the farm.
1. Once the cattle have grazed a paddock, the grass is then short enough to move the hens in. They are in mobile sheds, so we can move them around to spread that manure over the ground and eat the eggs and worm larvae of any parasites. This sounds disgusting to us, but they love it! It gives them something to do, as they are never confined and have a Maremma Guardian dog with them all the time.
2. To lay eggs for us that are highly nutritious and balanced in Omega 3s and have a crisp, clean taste to them.
3. To also fertilise the land beneath them. They are pretty gentle on the land if they are not left too long in one spot, so damage to pastures is minimal. But when it rains, the pastures just take off and can be ready for re-grazing in just two weeks. This hasn’t happened this year, though.
Your mission is to “work with nature and grow food the way it was meant to be. Good for you, good for the animals and good for the land”. This sounds like a massive undertaking! What are some the ways you aim to achieve this?
I think as I described we move the hens around, we also move our cattle around – and all in one mob. Our aim is to have high density grazing, so there is sufficient manure and urine left in an area to fertilise the land, move the cattle on and leave 100% ground cover plus approx. 2,000 kg/hectare of dry matter behind to grow and recover during a rest period, that is determined on the time of year and the current growth rates. You can get away with grazing the land shorter than this only once during a season, and then animals either need to be reduced or completely removed to give the land time to recover sufficiently for grazing again. If you don’t give the land sufficient recovery time, your productivity just keeps going backwards over time.
We also believe is balancing the soil chemistry to give our soils a better physical and biological function to increase plant productivity. If we are not growing lots of grass, we are not really productive; we need to keep our soil carbon levels up to store enough nutrients where they belong and where they can be utilised. We also have fenced off tree lots to allow native habitat to re-develop and give some of the local flora and fauna a place to live.
This sounds pretty simple, but there is a lot of planning and management to get it right. Farmers are more than capable of achieving these ideas, as we are now often educated at TAFE or universities. We need to be managers, book keepers, scientists, environmentalists, labourers, readers, you name it – we need all these skills in our businesses and more.
Education is important too. What are some of the courses you offer onsite?
Derek has been conducting the Kinsey/Albrecht soil fertility courses for years out at Kenilworth or in a location that suits a specific group. Most farmers can’t easily access this information in a way that is relevant to their needs, and Derek has been able to do this for them in a way that is useful. His background in teaching at TAFE for nearly 20 years has helped him achieve this.
Derek also provides a soils consulting service, where he will send soils for testing through a lab in the USA that has a proven consistency in its results, and he provides the soil recommendations. Derek is one of four Kinsey/Albrecht soils consultants in this country. There are another seven countries worldwide who have Kinsey/Alchrecht trained consultants – Australia is lucky to have so many.
How important do you feel it is to ensure good soil health for our future generations?
Soil health is important to all Australians. The farmers in this country are clever and are willing to try new and old ideas. William Albrecht did his research from the 1920s to 1970s, where Neal Kinsey took on his work and has proved on many farms worldwide over many decades that this way of rebuilding soil fertility works.
Soil balancing in this way will build soil fertility that will increase water holding capacity – it will increase carbon/humus levels – which holds more water. It will grow more plants, because it has more water and better nutrients and it will produce more kg of grain, meat and fibre. It will increase the nutrient value of our food, which will decrease the need to over eat and therefore decrease obesity. Nutrient rich food is necessary for our future generations, and why should we deny them!
What options do you have for those who may want to visit your farm and stay for a while?
We have a little farm stay cottage, and most guests who come are usually staying overnight or studying at the uni or want a bit of a farm experience. While I am busy doing what I do to get the eggs out to our customers, our guests often get the chance to tag along and see what it’s all about. We also have the shop owners who stock our product come and learn and see for themselves the trouble we go to, to get the product right. We think showing people what we do is the most important aspect to our business.
Drought is having a huge impact throughout Australia right now. How is your property weathering the harsh conditions?
That is an interesting question: we have grazed our pastures quite low and with the winds over the last two months and no rain, we are as dry as anyone.
But, we are de-stocking, although this has proved harder than usual, with the current markets flooded with young and older cattle. Our water supply is running out, and we have never in our 35 years experienced it this dry. This could be how our seasons could be for a little while longer, so we will continue to monitor pasture growth rates and be prepared to stock with less numbers when necessary.
What we have noticed is that we now don’t seem to have nine months to finish cattle; it seems now if they are not near weight in five – six months, it might dry off and you can’t finish them, but we have managed to get them to weight and in very good order – this is the success we are wanting and when we do return to better conditions, the promise for more kilograms of weight gain will be there.
Where can we find out more info/buy your eggs?
You can find out a lot of information on our website: workingwithnature.net.au or call us on 6779 1722 / 0488 791 722 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
We are always happy to talk with anyone about what we do!
Interview: Jo Robinson.