Natalie and Lois, two of the Real Food Store’s managers, have been travelling around Devon over the last few months to visit as many of our producers as possible. As a business, we are proud to support local growers, farmers and producers across the South West, and are keen to see for ourselves where the food we sell is coming from.
The Coakley family have been keeping poultry at Neopardy farm in Aylesbeare since 1965. The farm is now run by brother and sister team Richard and Jennifer, who supply the Real Food store, the café and Emma’s bread with free range eggs. Between the two of them, they run the entire operation, from managing the hens, maintaining the barns and the land, collecting the eggs, as well as sorting, packing and delivering to local businesses.
When we pulled up at the farm, we met with Richard who we already knew through the store. He explained to us the history of the farm, and how his father farmed there when they were younger. He took us to see the barns where the chickens live, but before we even went inside we were greeted by two hens on the lane that had clearly made a break for it! Richard explained that he has a number of cheeky chickens who get out of their enclosure nearly every day, but that they always come back in the evenings to sleep!
They always have at least two flocks of hens at any one time, with 300 chickens in each flock. At the time we visited they had three flocks, as the arrival of the newest had overlapped with the departure of the oldest. First, we went in to see the youngest hens who had arrived most recently. The chicks arrive at the farm from a breeder when they are 16 weeks old, and are kept for approximately one year. They lay for 12-14 days at a time before resting, and each day Richard can collect anything between 220-280 eggs each day, from each flock!
The young hens were clearly very curious about who we were, and came over to investigate. Richard explained that small flock sizes allow the chickens to express their own unique personalities, for example some of them were very keen to pop up and see us, and others weren’t interested in the slightest! He also told us that there is one very solitary hen in particular who prefers to live in the corridor between the barns, and won’t have it any other way! He went on to tell us that he sometimes feels as though he is looking after 900 children!
Each flock has access to ¼ acre of land each, rich with bushes, nettles and grass. Chickens are naturally forest birds and love to nestle in nettles and long grass, and it was lovely to see them foraging in the hedges and having the space to roam around and explore.
Coakley eggs are not certified organic, or registered with the RSPCA, but Richard told us that they regularly refer to the guidelines to see if there is anything they could be doing better, and to keep up to date with new ideas. The Coakleys have been buying their poultry feed from Crediton milling for the last 7 years. The feed they use is 70% wheat, mixed with sunflower seeds, split peas and a small amount of soya. Richard assured us that they pay a subsidy to ensure that the soya used in their batch of feed is free from GMOs. The feed produced by Crediton milling is known as “clean mill”, which means they don’t use any growth promoters, antibiotics or medication. They also try to source as much of the wheat as possible used in their feed from within Devon.
Before we went to see how the eggs were sorted and packed, we spoke to Richard about how he feels the industry has changed since they started the business. He said that like any business the demand fluctuates (notably with when The Great British Bake Off is on TV!), but that he has become more concerned recently with the price wars happening across British supermarkets. He explained that independent producers will never be able to compete with the prices of free range eggs in value supermarkets (who often don’t even pay their farmers the cost of production), and worries that small producers will eventually be pushed out of the market. This really emphasised to us the importance of supporting independent farmers, and ensuring that they are being paid a fair price for their produce.
Our last stop on the tour was to see where the eggs were sorted and packed (and to see the biggest pallet of egg boxes imaginable!). We met Jennifer who demonstrated the machine she was using to sort the eggs. She told us that even though the machine is very old, it’s more effective that the new model they purchased recently! It first shines a light through the eggs to make it easier for Jennifer to see if there are any cracks in the shell, and then automatically sorts them by weight for sorting into the medium and large boxes.
We would like to thank Richard and Jennifer for taking the time to answer our questions and show us around, we really enjoyed our afternoon!