Ben Grounds - VUE DU VOLCAN FARM
I grew up in Dalmeny, near Narooma, on the south coast of NSW. My wife Fi grew up in Albury, NSW. We lived in Melbourne for six and a half years, after moving down from Wollongong. We developed a love of ethical food culture and visited this area a lot before eventually moving here.
Vue du Volcan Farm is on 37 acres in Denver, with views to Mount Alexander. The house is on old volcanic soil, with other volcanoes within sight. Denver is about halfway between Daylesford and Kyneton. It probably associates itself most with Glenlyon, a cute village with a strong community and great general store. There is a mix of experienced farmers, tree changers, professionals, artists, and lots in between! We like the diversity and tolerance of the area.
We chose to farm ducks for three reasons: our land is suited to smaller animals (in terms of carrying capacity); we love French food and food culture; and not many people are doing ethical duck in Australia. We knew very little about ducks in the beginning - we had some experience with fowl, and did a lot of reading!
Our customers tend to be ethical food lovers. Most can be divided into three categories - those who don’t necessarily love duck but are willing to try something new, those who love duck but have never cooked it themselves, (we offer advice on the various ways to cook it or use the various cuts and products), and those who know how to cook it and appreciate ethical, regenerative- farmed pastured duck. There are a couple of chefs in this camp.
Most of these people are repeat customers with rave reviews - which is nice!
Neither of us had any farming experience prior to this. I studied public health/epidemiology, and Fi studied sustainability. We both worked in local government most recently, with a raft of various jobs in the past - bush regeneration, jewellery making, research, rock ‘n’ roll. I guess there were a range of transferrable skills we had, but on balance we probably had to learn more skills than we possessed!
We’ve been here for about two and a half years. There was little else apart from a house when we arrived. We did our first small test season with the ducks within our first year and we’ve increased our efforts this season. I wouldn’t say the farm is totally up and running yet - installing permanent infrastructure like water lines is an ongoing process, as is refining systems and home-made engineering solutions.
Between starting with so little knowledge, farming ducks in a way that very few others do, and the fact that they are not common livestock in Australia, the learning curve has been steep, with many disasters along the way. Most recently, our 1962 Massey Ferguson tractor blew a head gasket when we needed it to make feed, so we had to scramble to find feed or another tractor to be able to sustain all the ducks.
We run the farm based on principles of ethical animal treatment, regeneration of the land, transparency, slow food, and best flavour. We are aiming for diversity (of animals, grasses, plants etc.) We use a rotating system (not dissimilar to strip or cell grazing cattle) with portable electric netting, energisers and housing, so that the ducks eat and live on fresh pasture, and the pasture isn’t too degraded by over-grazing, trampling and pooing.
We have chickens to follow the ducks in a cell of the electric netting - they lay eggs and are meat for our home use, but also scratch around in the area the ducks have been in, like miniature little fluffy white egg laying pasture harrows.
Routine activities include picking up eggs from our layers (to incubate and hatch into ducklings), feeding the birds and washing out the water troughs, candling eggs, moving the brooder (which is mobile and on pasture too), grinding and mixing feed, taking ducks to the abattoir, butchering dressed ducks into delicious products, sourcing grain for feed, sourcing waste streams for feed (like spent brewers grain), trying to get better at social media, organising orders for meat, documenting processes, and building things like duck houses. The other half of our time is spent troubleshooting, fixing disasters small and large, and trying to make things more efficient.
I generally do an hour or so of farm work before getting ready for my off-farm job, probably go to the hardware store or irrigation store in my lunch break, and then do 2 or 3 hours of farm work when I get home. Fi is on the farm full time to get a lot of the work done. The division of labour is important. Summer is a bit easier in that the daylight lasts, so I tend to work when it’s light. My head torch gets used a lot in winter!
We have additional help in the boning room on butchering days at the moment. We’re aiming to make it work essentially with just the two of us, although when we have the occasional helper it’s really great, and there are always pinch points where extra hands are good.
Long term, our goal is efficiency! To expand our breeding stock and hatch all our own ducklings, to improve and diversify our pasture so more of the ducks’ needs are met by it, to add other animals onto the farm mix, to get the thing humming so the two of us can be dedicated to it. And to somehow find a little time for R&R.
We really enjoy the connection with animals and nature. Waking up each morning and looking over the natural world. Also people saying our duck is the best they’ve ever eaten.
Favourite places in the region: The Radio Springs Hotel in Lyonville - ride (a bike or a horse) along the rail trail from Trentham
Lavandula in Hepburn for a lunch on a sunny day
Walk along Barkers Creek on a cold night to the Bridge Hotel to watch a band.
The Belvedere Social in Daylesford, an excellent local restaurant committed to local producers and seasonal products.
For anyone thinking of moving out here: Buddy up with someone to get the lowdown. Visit a lot beforehand. Don’t buy land in a wet season. Read and read and read and connect with others and then expect to learn a lot. If you plan to live in town, buy a bike and ride everywhere. The streets are perfect for it as they are quiet and drivers are way more relaxed than in the city. If you live out of town be prepared for your bike to gather dust. Download the fire apps and weather apps, you’ll use them a lot. Support local businesses as they are part of the reason it’s great to live out this way. And of course, support local farmers.
The best way to eat duck is Fi’s red wine and chocolate magret de canard!
Our ducks are available online at https://www.openfoodnetwork.org.au/vue-du-volcan-farm/shop and we will deliver to Castlemaine, Daylesford and Kyneton. You can also buy at the farm gate at Jonai Farms. We currently do Fairfield and Collingwood Farmer’s Markets in the city, and drop offs with the CSA schemes of both Jonai Farms and Colin and Sally’s Organic Beef and Lamb.