SASSAFRAS, TASMANIA — Call it a country club for chickens.
At Nichol’s Poultry farm, located in a lush Tasmanian valley surrounded by rolling green hills, fluffy white birds with tanned red wattles roam into and out of sheds about the size of a New York studio apartment. Some seek respite from the hot Australian sun in shady patches of grass next to their coops. Others hop playfully onto raised canvas walkways designed to encourage their movement between sheds.
“We designed a system that allows our chickens to go outside whenever they want,” said Jane Bennett, CEO of TasFoods, the company that owns the farm. “It’s unusual because most chicken houses are huge and many birds marketed as free-range never actually go outside.”
Bennett’s birds come and go as they wish. Most wander outside in the early morning hours or at dusk, though an adventurous few hop on the canvas walkways, which double as chicken trampolines. None is known to have ever meandered more than a few hundred meters away from the coops. The fact that British colonialists never brought foxes here means Bennett (and the chickens) needn’t worry about predators.
A native of Tasmania, Bennett made farmhouse cheese at farms in England in the early 1990s and studied agriculture before returning to her family’s dairy business and later starting TasFoods. She had initially planned to import a Label Rouge heritage bird from France in order to complement her company’s boutique cheese, goat milk, and fresh wasabi lines.
But when Australia’s strict quarantine process for such birds proved too expensive, she and her team decided to try another approach: They took a global chicken breed already sold in Australia, the Ross 308, and gave it the freedom to wander whenever it wanted. In so doing, they discovered that the same chicken sold at KFC and McDonald’s could taste as flavorful as a French heritage broiler when given the chance to frolic in the sun and dine on grass and insects.