So, the plan was we meet at the Uncle Tom’s Pies servo at the Gateway to Mullum, early Saturday afternoon. I had money in crisply folded notes to hand over to a man to whom I had only ever spoken over the phone. And of course as soon as we swept into the parking bay it was obvious who the object of my assignation was – a chunky little truck displayed a cartoon duck on its rear – so it was all over in a matter of minutes, the duck deal successfully accomplished.
That was my introduction to AJ. Two weeks later I am bumping up a steep and winding rural track to the property which constitutes the headquarters for Bangalow Poultry and Game, around 200 acres of land called Rafton’s Farm. Late afternoon sun dapples the gentle curves of surrounding hills and warms the backs of the hundreds of ducks ranging freely outside within their generous enclosure.
Alexander John Scott has been breeding and selling Pekin ducks here full time for about two years now. Originally from Western Australia, he had wound up in the region four years previously on his travels around the country, with a van that had broken down and a cousin in the area. ‘Grandma said to go and look up Graeme,’ AJ tells me, ‘that’s Graeme Stockdale my cousin’. (Graeme was head chef at Bangalow’s Utopia restaurant for years before recently relocating to Tommy’s at Lismore). ‘And I’ve been here ever since.’
A trained chef, AJ has farming in his blood – his grandfather had a farm and his parents
a small outdoor piggery in the UK – so there is a reason why he looks so supremely in his element, as if he has belonged there forever. And yet by his own admission it has been a huge learning curve.
AJ is the main duck supplier locally, furnishing such restaurants as La Table, Bangalow Dining Rooms, Harvest, Che Bon, Ate and, naturally, Tommy’s. As he talks to me he leads me into a vast shed which used to be a piggery; it is positively heaving with ducks. There are some 200 to a pen, and according to AJ they are only inside for about three weeks before being released outdoors and allowed to roam around for another four or five.
Of course AJ is oblivious to the stench; I am simply not inhaling. And besides, the ducks are adorable in the unique way that ducks are, happily – and I am determined that that is the word – waddling their web-footed way around, tumbling over each other, not seeming restrained or traumatised in any way. AJ later shows me a turkey in another pen surrounded by milling chickens – he started up chooks when at one point he wasn’t able to access enough ducks – and tells me that he uses it as a mother to keep the baby chickens warm when they are first placed into the large chicken tractors. (‘This is not normal practice,’ he says, ‘but it works incredibly well’. My heart melting.)
All of this is giving me a glimpse of a style of – dare I say humane? – farming which is the opposite-spectrum-end of intensive. AJ tells me that he would be the first to admit that small-scale sustainable farmers ‘won’t feed the world. But consumers with a disposable income, concerned about the impact on the environment industrial/intensive farming
has (excessive use of herbicides, antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones, animal effluent into water courses, food miles, animal welfare, GM crops … to name a few), I feel these consumers should buy from small-scale local farmers and understand these farmers are producing a far superior product, which is environmentally sustainable, labour intensive and priced accordingly. Do you really want to eat a chicken that’s grown in its own shit, and then, when processed chilled in a vat full of chlorine? Not me. All this boils down to is the way Australian agriculture is changing. There will only be two types of farms left, either super farms, contracted or, most likely, owned by the major supermarket chains, and small producers at a local level, selling their produce at farmers markets.’
AJ sells his happy ducks at the Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah and New Brighton farmers markets – and he can be reached on 0421 947 820.