Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where BELLASATO FARM, Ingham, NORTH QUEENSLAND
It’s sugar cane season in Tropical North Queensland – the cane is flowering, the tufts of delicate white blossoms blow gracefully in the breeze, and the railway tracks that criss-cross the roads are busy with heavily laden cane trains lumbering towards the mill.
Driving through row upon row of sunlit cane fields watched over by the majestic Hinchinbrook Island, it’s not exactly the place you’d expect to find a free-range chicken farm.
While on our latest road trip we’d been invited, via Instagram messaging, to lunch – for a roast chicken no less – and a tour of the new on-site processing facility at Bellasato Farm just east of Ingham.
‘Bellasato’ – a combination of two words, ‘bella’ being Italian for beautiful and ‘sato’ meaning homestead or village in Japanese – is the property of Dan and Leanne Cordner, first generation cane and chicken farmers. Yes, you read that right …cane and chickens.
In addition to farming 100 acres of sugar cane, the Cordners are also the first in North Queensland to grow the Australian heritage Sommerlad meat birds.
The couple, along with their young girls Adele (6) and Hayley (4), moved here just over 18 months ago, leaving their career jobs – Dan was an engineer and Leanne a microbiologist – in favour of working the land.
Driven by a desire for a lifestyle change, they decided to take their passion for food and knowing how it was grown to another level.
‘I was working in a fly-in-fly-out mine job before we bought the farm, so I was away a lot,’ says Dan. ‘The kids are only little once and we simply wanted to spend more time with them, to sit down and have lunch together, to not miss birthdays. And even though I’m busier than ever now, at least I’m here, and I get to see them every day.’
Coming from such vastly different backgrounds, the couple admit they’ve very much jumped in the deep end.
‘Our family all think we’re totally crazy, but at least they don’t say it to our faces,’ laughs Dan.
‘I grew up in Melbourne, and Leanne is from East Gippsland, so it’s a very different life out here. Adele catches the school bus home and it drops her off right at the top of our driveway. That still kind of blows me away,’ says Dan.
The couple had originally relocated to Townsville about 10 years ago after Leanne was forced to give up work due to health issues.
‘I had a chemical sensitivity and was really struggling in Melbourne,’ says Leanne. ‘Odours, exposure to paint or chemicals of any kind used to set me off. My specialist at the time suggested we move to Townsville as he’d had many patients improve by moving there. He couldn’t explain why and it seemed odd but we thought it was worth a visit. Within a couple of days of being there I actually felt ‘normal’ again for the first time in years, and so we moved up six months later.’
‘No one can explain it, and we tried to figure it out for a long time, researching like crazy, but in the end we just had to let it go. It definitely makes you appreciate your health when you’ve had something serious go wrong like that.’
‘The right food was a big part of my recovery, and that really magnified our interest in knowing where our food was coming from and how it was grown,’ says Leanne.
The couple had dreamed about the idea of farming for quite some time but it wasn’t until Dan was offered a redundancy two years ago that they decided to ‘give it a crack’.
‘We realised that there was a massive gap in the market in North Queensland where nobody was producing chickens,’ says Dan.
‘It seemed a good fit for us. In terms of regulation and processing it’s something that we can handle ourselves.’
Dan says they researched others who were running similar operations and spent time with another farmer in Western Australia who grows the Sommerlad meat birds.
‘I worked in their abattoir for a week and a half, to see if it was definitely what we wanted to do.’
‘When we first started here we ran about 200 of the conventional meat birds, but decided very quickly that it just wasn’t for us. As soon as they got past 8-10 weeks old they just started to die, they couldn’t walk, there were lots of heart attacks and cardiac issues. They go from 40gram day old chicks to 35 days later being a kilo and a half dressed bird – it’s just crazy to watch that rapid progression. They’re only bred to live to 7 weeks and we just thought – this isn’t normal. We used to call them ‘frankin-chickens’ because it just seemed really unnatural to us.’
‘We knew there had to be something better and after meeting Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad, and learning about their breed, the decision was a no-brainer for us in terms of animal welfare and ethics. And the end product is beautiful in terms of flavour and texture, so you get the best of both worlds.’
The couple had originally planned to process their birds at a nearby abattoir, but when the arrangement fell through they felt they didn’t have any other option than to build their own on-site processing facility.
‘The closest abattoir for us would have been one down on the Sunshine Coast, which just wasn’t viable in terms of cost or food miles.’
‘It’s a big risk – we still don’t know what sort of demand there will be for the Sommerlad birds up here, the abattoir is a significant investment for us, it will be very difficult to ever recoup that capital,’ says Dan.
While they had initially intended on clearing all of the cane on the property to just run the chickens on pasture, they soon decided that keeping the cane made more sense.
‘When we first bought the property we also bought the cane crop off the farmer, so we harvested that crop and it wasn’t too hard, so we looked into it further. We researched some innovative cane farmers in the district and looked at who was doing best practice, visited several farms and attended some courses and conferences and in the end decided that maybe we could make a go of incorporating both the chickens and the sugar cane together.’
‘It’s perfect really because we’d never make a living on just cane or just chickens alone. Basically the farm is run as one big business unit – the chickens and the cane land share and we rotate them around.’
‘Cane is normally a monoculture crop, so the farmers usually manage it as such to just grow the sugar cane. We don’t want to do that, so we’re trying some inter-row cropping and companion planting and then we rotate the chickens. We’re also making own fertilizers on farm to try and reduce the reliance on synthetic inputs. Ideally we’d like to get to the stage where everything is within our control.’
‘Cane is a perennial grass crop, so you plant it in the ground and when you cut it back to nothing on the ground it will grow back. Some farmers get three years off that one plant, others get maybe 10 to 14. It largely comes down to how well you look after your soil. All the guys that are really kicking goals and doing well are focusing on soil health and diversity in the soil.’
‘We’re planting over a dozen different pasture species and legumes on our cane fallow paddocks, which is what the chickens run on, and we run for a much longer rest period than traditional cane farming. Basically the mixed pasture gives us healthier soils, which will give us better cane, and great chickens. It’s a great symbiotic relationship.’
While the challenges of farming have been overwhelming at times, the couple say being new to farming has it’s benefits.
‘We don’t have any preconceived ideas and we’re more likely to question why things are done a certain way because we’re new to the industry. We’re not as likely to accept ‘oh, because it’s always been done that way’ as a good enough reason to continue a certain practice. And we don’t have family – parents or grandparents – putting pressure on us to continue doing things the way they always have. We’re free to try new things without upsetting anyone.’