ON the day of Black Saturday, Diego Tuyol chose to stay and defend, a decision he feels he should not have made in retrospect.
Old Farm Happy Valley is located on the King Parrot Creek, 450 acres of farmland rising either side of the Whittlesea-Yea Road, just beyond the Hazeldene Store.
The creek gurgles through the property, and the lush fields quickly roll into steep bush covered hills.
It is idyllic and beautiful, and a death trap.
On the day of the fires, Diego attempted to bring his animals down from the hills to the home paddock, to his sheds and the old farmhouse.
“There was no time for tears, no time to think, my animals were here and I didn’t want to lose them,” Diego said.
But the flames were moving too quickly and the heat so intense, that 48 cows and all his goats perished.
Surrounded by carnage, Diego fought to save what he had left – the farm’s infrastructure.
Hours alone, he doused with water and tackled spot fires, his world burning around him.
It would eventually pass and Diego would make his way to Yea, blackened and bleeding, dressed in only shorts and a singlet.
He would be taken to hospital, and face a decade of health problems and issues from that catastrophic day.
It is from these ruins and the ongoing repercussions of his decision that Old Farm Happy Valley was born.
Having lost faith in everything and traumatised from battling to save his farm all by himself, chickens became his outlet.
Before Black Saturday, Diego had never had chickens but with an incubator and 24 eggs he began his new enterprise – free-range eggs.
Intent on keeping his mind occupied and unable to sleep after the fire, Diego would sit up at night and research and design.
“I wanted to come up with something special,” Diego said.
And that’s what he did.
Shade cloths dot the lush green paddocks, strategically placed to allow chickens cover and security for their daily dust bath ablutions.
Intricate sprinkler systems are positioned throughout the enclosure providing fresh drip water for the chickens, and wet relief and bushfire protection during the hot summer months.
A massive A-frame chicken tractor dominates the view, a work in progress as Diego has great plans for this chicken shelter.
The fencing is all Diego’s handiwork and is a complex system allowing for an external pen that moats the electrified chicken paddock.
Maremmas are kept in the external pen to discourage predators.
And though wedgetails remain a problem, he has not experienced any of the losses he previously did to foxes.
“Before I designed this enclosure I lost 800, 900 birds to foxes,” Diego said.
“I lost a lot of money because I was learning.
“But look how happy they are now.
“They’re constantly grazing in this paddock.
“There is no frenzy of eating, no stress, no boredom.”
And the vision is a tribute to his perseverance, as thousands of chickens calmly co-exist, contentedly clucking and going about their business.
Diego is very conscious of the chickens’ well-being, and that is why the maremmas are separated from the chickens, to minimise the birds’ stress levels.
Diego also does not routinely cull birds once they pass their peak laying period, preferring to put the birds into retirement.
“I may not get many eggs from the older chickens, but what I value from them is they dig over the garden for me, they look after the ground and they fertilise it,” Diego said.
“All my animals work.
“Everybody has a job to do.”
For there are not only chickens at Old Farm Happy Valley, there are goats and Shropshire sheep, Angus cattle and alpacas.
Three piebald alpacas provide protection for a second paddock of chickens.
Isa Browns are the predominant chicken in this paddock, and they are chosen for their laying capabilities as well as their brown eggs.
This is another of Diego’s initiatives.
He also has white Leghorns.
They produce white eggs and this allows Diego to differentiate and brand his product on the market.
The white eggs are badged under Wild Hen Happy Valley and are organic and gluten free.
The chickens’ diet is carefully monitored so that they are not exposed to wheat, soy or corn.
Diego believes that people may not be able to eat eggs or have allergies that are based on what the chicken has been fed, and this is an issue he is trying to address and change.
It has resulted in Diego developing somewhat of a cult following for his product, with people travelling in order to ensure they can buy his eggs.
“Sick kids eats my eggs,” Diego said.
“No reaction, no allergic response.
“Do you know how good that makes me feel?
Diego readily admits he is inordinately proud of his achievements with Old Farm Happy Valley.
It became his sanity and reason to live in a dark period of his life, but from the smoking embers of that bushfire new life was born.