Jeremy and Stephanie Van Boxtel grow pasture to feed chickens that lay roost-ruling eggs, writes Richard Cornish.

What is it?
Beautiful, fresh brown eggs laid by hens who graze on pasture, scratch about the soil and roost in a protected shed at night guarded against foxes by Maremma dogs.

Who’s producing it?
Jeremy Van Boxtel was working in IT when his dad Bert, a dairy farmer, was diagnosed with cancer, so he left his job to work on the farm. He and his wife Stephanie bought a few hens to lay eggs for some extra income during COVID. The little egg business took off, Bert’s treatment was a success, allowing him to return to dairying, and The HomeGrown Farm became Jeremy and Stephanie’s new business. One of the big reasons Jeremy wanted to live on the land was his daughters. “We have three young girls and I wanted them to grow up knowing where their food comes from and give them a future on the land,” says Jeremy. “We’re the third generation here and I want the girls to be the fourth.”

Where is it?
The HomeGrown Farm is at Catani near Garfield in West Gippsland. The farm sits on what was the Koo Wee Rup Swamp, a wetland that was drained for agriculture in the 1870s. The floor of the swamp was rich in organic matter making it ideal for farming and horticulture.

Why it’s different
Unlike conventional free-range egg production, the model the Van Boxtels use sees the birds housed in mobile sheds that are moved every week. The flocks of 850 birds follow herds of young dairy or beef cattle on the 100-hectare farm. The cattle are moved on, but their manure becomes infested with insect larvae, which is perfect food for the hens. They scratch about in the manure and eat the larvae, effectively sanitising the pasture of flies that might otherwise spread eye disease in the cattle. The spread manure fertilises the soil, feeding more grass – and the manure left by the chooks is good fertiliser, too. The sheds are lightweight and can be shifted by one person, but they’re big enough to house the hens in case of inclement weather, or if the flock needs to be quarantined indoors.

Who’s a fan?
Gavin Saunders from Biddy Martha’s Café in Bunyip has been using The HomeGrown Farm eggs since the Van Boxtels dropped around a carton. “They’re the best eggs around, and just down the road,” says Saunders. He slides a fried egg into a Bunyip Bakery roll with some local bacon and tomato relish made to an old family recipe. They’re the breakfast of choice for commuters taking the train towards Melbourne from the station across the road.

Across the Princes Highway at Tynong North, Kirsten Hardiker from Cannibal Creek Winery uses the eggs at her cellar door restaurant. “When selecting our eggs for the restaurant we looked for somewhere local, with sustainable practices and the chickens’ welfare at heart,” says Hardiker. “We came across Jeremy with his free-range eggs. They have amazing quality and the yolks a rich colour.” The yolks top the steak tartare, and they also add a luscious texture to the lemon tart.

Where can I get it?
Local stores and cafés in Gippsland, from Moe to Packenham. In Melbourne, look for them at Boccaccio Cellars and Belmore Biodynamic Meats in Balwyn; Ginni Market in Wantirna South; and Wholefood Merchants in Ferntree Gully.