When major chicken processor Inghams followed market trend towards centralisation and withdrew contractual production from regions like the Richmond Valley, those who owned the sheds and looked after poultry were left holding the bag.
As of the end of June there are an estimated 66 sheds on 15 farms in the district now forced to find another income stream, with 65 jobs extinguished and a loss of nearly $20 million from the regional economy, serviced by the centres of Casino, Kyogle and Lismore.
With sheds vastly devalued, borrowing ability is reduced and ability to service debt limited. However, a handful of growers are looking beyond the pain to rebuild their farms using an innovative model inspired by a group of facilitators who call themselves Regionality, based on the Tweed.
Jess Cruickshank, Piora via Casino, found Regionality when she organised a Casino Beef Week high tea, inspired by her husband Jeremy, a poultry grower with four sheds who also consults overseas, who had wracked his brains to come up with a solution to the problem.
"We've got to re-invent ourselves," Mr Cruickshank said. "But farmers are resilient. This is like a bad drought. We've got to turn around and we can turn around."
The Cruickshanks are now investing in ducks, Pekin/Aylsebury, initially harvesting eggs but will include meat as soon as they can access a small abattoir. Ducks are free-range and rotated through paddocks shared with commercial Black Simmental/Charbray cattle. Donkeys guard against foxes and dingoes but raptors are a problem.
"Ducks are more suited to free range," said Mr Cruickshank. "They don't need vaccinations, they're more tolerant of temperature extremes. They're easier to grow and they're great to work with in the kitchen."
The Cruickshanks won't rule out a return to some intensive rearing but in the meantime sheds will be used to grow feed and food and down the track may house a small on-farm processing plant.
Other growers are looking beyond birds to a diverse range of farmgate production, from eggs to aqua culture - with tanks in sheds - along with aquaponics, even mushroom farming.
Regionality founder Rose Wright says a pilot program that includes six farms will be managed by a single co-operative, with labour shared across all farms. She says this could be a model for other regional communities going through the same challenges.
"What we're trying to do is protect farmers from being disempowered at the back end of the supply chain.
"We have farmers who have lost up to 75 per cent of their asset value, all their income, and most have significant debt. These corporate decisions have consequences for regional communities.
"The challenge now is how to bring a diverse group of people together. First they need to be open to the idea of innovation.
"We want to make them part of the whole process - total involvement. This is about changing how we interact with the consumer; to make what the consumer wants."
Part of the push will be embracing regenerative models that include conversion of waste to value added product with the umbrella organisation involved in processing, distribution and marketing to both retail and wholesale customers."
"Our core values are about collaboration," she said, "and producing clean, fresh produce that has providence and traceability showing ethical use of land in a regenerative food system that puts assets back into the land. More consumers are choosing products they can trust."
Ms Wright admits the approach is different, in that the co-op will not be based on one product. but she says that by using a collaborative approach rather than a competitive one, there is the potential to create a $100 - $150m turnover in, say, aquaculture and other products, supporting 60 to 100 jobs.
"It comes down to the business case, investment and funding," she said. "We need a clearly articulated business case and this costs money.
Funding will be required to develop a sound business case, meanwhile Richmond Valley Council will facilitate between state government and private enterprise.
"This is the initial phase but we will open it up after we have real clarity," said Ms Wright. "After all, this is a radical change and can be quite frightening."
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