Five Generations Deep in Regeneration: Meet the Eggerts, Oxhill Organics
For five generations, the Eggert family have called the lush hinterland near Wauchope, NSW, home. Their award-winning egg business, Oxhill Organics, is synonymous with the gate-to-plate movement, while their earth-first farming practices have set increasingly high standards for the industry. It wasn't always smooth sailing for the Eggerts, and their tale of conventional-to-organic transition is one of grit, courage, triumph and hard-won lessons in chook manure.
I first met Chris and Ann Eggert at the Farm2Plate Exchange in 2021. Chris was soon to present on stage and he was clearly nervous, scrunching a water bottle in his hand like a stress ball. “I belong in a paddock, not on stage with a microphone in front of hundreds of people,” he told me. I reassured him that the crowd wasn’t interested in a slick performance, they were here to listen to his story. And who better to tell it – jumbled words and crushed water bottle notwithstanding – than Chris and his wife Ann?
Before long, there was barely a dry eye in the house, as Chris narrated his journey of triumph and tribulation. He shared moments of gut-wrenching hardship and courage, bringing us all to tears. Chris closed out his speech with a standing ovation. The collective admiration was palpable.
It seems to me that Chris’s story was a much-needed reminder to everyone present that, even in the thick of hard times and blazing heat and despite the physical and emotional challenges of farming, we should all be proud to be involved in agriculture.
Chris’ tale of regeneration, from soil to milk stand, has stayed with me over the years, and recently I hopped on the phone to Ann to hear more of their incredible story.
Oxhill Organics Farm is based in Redbank, Wauchope, on the traditional lands of the Birpai. I spoke with Ann Eggert at the end of an underwhelming winter’s day in August 2023. The region was promised a thorough drenching, but instead, the dusty murmur of concerningly dry weather lingered across the Eastern Seaboard.
Chris and Ann run Oxhill Organics along with their three boys Lachie, Jimmy and Billy and Chris’s parents Jenn and Paul. Their family has been farming here for five generations.
They milk approximately 180-200 mixed breed cows once daily, producing roughly 700,000 litres of milk a year for the dairy cooperative Norco, along with 1000 egg-laying hens, meat chickens, pork and beef.
It would be easy to assume that engaging in regeneration removes profit as a goal, but it’s absolutely not the case. Farms need to be financially viable to exist at all. Instead, the regenerative systems at Oxhill Organics redefine what it means to be in business in partnership with the planet.
If you could capture their approach to farming in one word, it would be mindfulness. They are creating a culture of abundance and resilience in their local food system. However, the Eggerts are the first to admit that their focus prior to the big shift was production and profit.
In 2000, the dairy industry was subject to deregulation. Up until this point, the price of milk had been determined by state governments. Now, farmers faced a huge loss as prices were predicted to drop significantly from around 50 cents to 25 cents. Meanwhile, market demand for organic milk had increased prices to 70 cents a litre.
The dairy crisis was reaching a head and Australia was weathering a devastating drought. With the farm being production and profit-driven, the organic industry was seen as a more promising income stream and secure line of business. At the time, many dairy farmers were making such small margins on their milk that the common cry from agronomists was to get big or get out.
The Eggerts were approached by Hastings Co-op, a small local dairy cooperative, to join a new organic milk initiative. They joined one of a handful of farms to sign on. This meant that their traditionally conservative and high-yield dairy operation became a novice in the organic space overnight.
In hindsight, Chris admits that going cold turkey on conventional farming was a pretty tough undertaking and not for the faint of heart. Luckily the Eggerts are known for their fortitude.
Ann remembers those first few years vividly. As a conventional operation, the farm was dependent on lots of different inputs including urea, nitrogen, phosphorus, weed suppressants and antibiotics. Chris turned to a number of consultants to help ease the transition. What he found were as many theories and practices around what it meant to be organic as types of heritage breed chooks, which is to say a lot! They forged on regardless attempting to supplement and replace the different inputs with organic alternatives.
At one stage during this phase of experimentation, the Eggerts used chicken manure collected from the fields as organic fertiliser. This was not a popular decision and resulted in complaints from surrounding farms, communities and councils due to the stench! They can laugh about it now, reflecting that perhaps the stench should’ve been a giveaway that applying raw chicken manure wasn’t the most ecologically sound decision either.
Chris chalks it up to an entrenched mindset after years of conventional agriculture; a way that saw farming as a far more mechanical exercise. Over time this shifted and they began to adopt practices that supported the soil and ecosystems that lay beneath. While this transition sounds simple enough, it was anything but.
Within farming circles at the time, success was measured not just by profit but by the levels of milk in the vat. Chris realised that in order to survive and thrive, he needed to rethink this. No longer would Oxhill's success be defined by the value of traditional assets on the farm – machinery, infrastructure, heads of cattle, milk vat levels or lack of weeds – but by the natural resources that existed both on and below the ground. Maximum milk production was no longer the be all and end all, rather the quality and health of the product and ecosystems surrounding the farm was the true indicator that they were on the right track.
This regenerative way of farming also forced Chris and his family to look inward to clarify how they wanted to exist as a part of a greater ecosystem. They realised that farming, a job that once felt like a battle between nature, animals and humans, could stop fuelling degeneration and actively participate in regenerating the planet.
When we talk about what it means to be in a state of regeneration, the subject and importance of community is religiously referred to, no matter where you are in Australia. In the last few years, people have rediscovered what it means to exist within community and the significance it brings to daily life.
Reflecting on their own journey as a multigenerational farm, community was the cornerstone to success; they were your customers, the people you would call when problems or challenges arose, the parents of the kids your children went to school with, present at church on Sundays or running the local butcher… rural communities were at the heart of it all.
But for many Australians, communities have undergone radical change over the last thirty years, with people being drawn to the city for work and children told to go get a job off farm to ensure security and a better quality of life, slowly leading to the shrinking of rural Australia.
COVID-19 brought about a resurgence of people wanting to live away from cities and rebuild their lives in quieter spaces, where the traffic goes a little slower and people stop for conversations in the middle of the street.
These days opportunities are expanding in our rural towns and industries, but it wasn’t always that way. When Chris and Ann first signed up for organic milk production with the Hastings Co-op, three out of the four participating farms dropped out due to the difficulty and stress of it all.
Transitioning from award-winning full milk vats to empty vats within the week was not for the faint of heart. Despite being a whole-family decision, it didn’t remove the challenges experienced internally.
The Eggert family speaks openly about the social implications that were evident when they began their new chapter. Chris’s father was a highly respected farmer within the community, known for gold medal dairy and crops, yet no matter how strong in conviction or self-assurance, the power of a questioning community can make one reconsider their own decisions too. But even as the societal chatter gained momentum Chris shared that his determination, laced with hope, would never see him waver. Fast forward 25 years and the thought of not being loved by the community for the practices they employ is unimaginable.
In listening to Chris and Ann’s story of hope, it’s easy to take the current rise in interest and support for our agricultural industry for granted. Over the past 50 years, nearly an entire generation of Australians left the family farm due to the financial and ecological struggles experienced over the past 50 years. Chris and Ann were conscious of this when raising their three boys, talking openly and honestly about the industry and what it meant to be a farmer and steward of the land.
The power of these conversations is clear in Jimmy Eggert’s life choices. With the support of the community and customers of Oxhill Organics, Jimmy has recently become the fifth generation at Oxhill Farm to engage in the industry.
In a recent interview, Jimmy spoke about his decision. “When I was figuring out what I’d like to do with my life after school, I only thought about a couple of things; it needed to be something that was unique, and it needed to be something that would have an impact. Farming fulfilled this for me, as I had the opportunity to make a unique product that I could be proud of, and use it to teach people about the importance of knowing where their food comes from, how the animals are treated, and the impact farming has on the environment”.
Farmers like Chris and Ann believe it is a privilege to be able to grow and distribute real food to Australians. The rise of conscious consumers willing to support a higher price point for food that is grown regeneratively gives them a whole new sense of hope.
In an industry where the price of milk no longer honours the time and knowledge of a farmer, the Eggert’s philosophy and products are a delicious opportunity for people to engage in what it means to participate in the act of community and regeneration.
If the recent demand for Jimmy’s products is anything to go by, the future is full of potential for farmers to grow food that not only feeds Australians but nurtures our fragile landscapes and gives a new sense of hope for what it means to be involved in Australian agriculture.