on the free range: (above) The
larger houses provide free access to the mixed grass
and weeds of the paddock. Larger birds don’t
even need to be shut in at night.
The town of Gisborne, population 31,719, sits at the base
of New Zealand’s East Cape, the North Island’s
wild and remote right arm. It was here that Captain Cook,
the great British navigator, first put to shore in his circumnavigation
of these islands in 1769, and today it’s still easier
to go in and out by sea than it is by land. The next nearest
major town is a three-hour drive on a two-lane road that winds
down through the spectacular Waioeka Gorge, with native bush,
commercial forestry, scrubby grasslands, and occasional lush
pastures towering above or dropping away precipitously on
When you reach the top of the pass crossing the last mountain
range before descending to the coast, there’s a sign
that says, “Let’s keep Gisborne District TB Free!”—an
indication of how isolated this area remains, and also one
reason that it is now home to the country’s largest
organic chicken producer, Willows Group Limited, run by Jake
and Leigh-Ann Heuvel.
Poultry production, New Zealand style,
looks a lot like it does in the U.S.
enforced: When we arrive at the farm the
first thing Jake Heuvel does is write down our names
and addresses in a notebook. Biosecurity regulations
require him to keep a record of all visitors to
the farm, to protect against viruses that could
devastate the poultry industry, and native birds.
When we arrive at the farm the first thing Jake Heuvel does
is write down our names and addresses in a notebook. Biosecurity
regulations require him to keep a record of all visitors to
the farm, and not just because of the area’s tuberculosis-free
status. Imports of live chickens and chicken meat to New Zealand
are severely restricted on biosecurity grounds—the US
has Newcastle disease virus, Asia has the avian flu virus,
to name just two of the pathogens that could devastate the
domestic poultry industry and potentially harm endangered
native bird species as well.
As a result, virtually all the chicken eaten in New Zealand
is raised and processed domestically. In contrast to the dairy,
beef, and sheep meat sectors, however, which are all predominantly
grass-based, conventional poultry production in New Zealand
looks a lot like it does in the US: large scale battery-cage
facilities, with tens of thousands of birds under one roof,
innocent of fresh air and fresh grass.
NZ poultry giant Tegel has 55% of the market, producing 44
million chickens a year. There are two or three other big
conventional players, and a number of very small local producers,
some of them organic, a few of them certified. And then there
are the Heuvels, currently raising and processing 2600 free-range,
certified organic birds a week, determined to show that commercial
chicken production in New Zealand can be organic.
With its flat coastal plain, warm summers, and relatively
dry conditions (1-1.5 m of rain annually, compared to 2 or
even 3 m in other parts of the country), Gisborne—pronounced
‘Giz-bun’ in Kiwi-speak—is better known
for its Chardonnay vineyards, orchards, corn, and vegetable
production, but it is slowly gaining a reputation as a center
of organic farming as well.
Heinz-Wattie, a major producer of canned and frozen foods,
has established an organic farm nearby, while Millton Vineyards,
New Zealand’s largest and oldest organic winemaker,
produces an award-winning chenin blanc just down the road.
That’s another reason why the Heuvels settled on this
area for their operation. That, and the fact that they like
“When I first came through Gisborne thirty years ago,”
recalls the Dutch-born Jake, “I thought, if I can find
a way to make a living here, I’ll do it.” A New
Zealand resident for the last 13 years, Jake relocated from
Taupo (300 km to the west) in 1999 with plans to combine his
background as a livestock processing facility engineer—he
has worked extensively in the US and Europe—with the
growing demand for certified organic meat.
They started with a possum ranch. Could
chickens by far behind?
Even so, Jake readily admits he got into the business of
raising chickens almost by accident. It all started when he
designed a possum processing facility for an entrepreneur
in the town of Whangarei—a project which put him in
touch with other progressive NZ agriculturists and got him
thinking about market opportunities for small-scale, high-quality
(Possums in New Zealand are an Australian species introduced
in the 19th century, furrier and less rat-like than the North
American opossum. Unfortunately, they have become a major
pest because of their prolificacy—population estimates
run as high as 70 million—and their voracious appetite
for native vegetation. Hong Kong offers a seasonal market
for possum meat.)
Together with two other business partners, the Heuvels formed
Willows Group, Ltd, converted an existing facility in Gisborne
for organic chicken processing, and contracted with four area
farmers to provide the birds. When a few of the contract farmers
bowed out—“this is too much work for most people,”
Jake sighs—the Heuvels got organized to make up the
difference on their own, 15-ha (37 ac) property twenty minutes
west of town. Both farm and facility are certified by AgriQuality
New Zealand, a Crown-owned certification service that was
formerly a division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries
Pastured birds in New Zealand have few
The chicks start out in small, heated sheds (about 2 x 4
m); after two to three weeks they go on to larger houses (4
x 6 m) whose wide-open doors offer free access to the mixed
grass and weeds of the paddock. Both small and large houses
are built on skids so they can be pulled to fresh pasture
with the tractor. “If the grass gets too short, they
can see the birds at the next house over and they’ll
go over and join them,” Jake laughs. “Even the
young chicks love going out in the grass.”
New Zealand has no snakes and no native land mammals—no
raccoons, no coyotes, no skunks—so predators here are
limited to hawks, gulls, and rats; the larger birds don’t
even need to be shut in at night unless the weather is really
bad. Bedding in the houses is clean, untreated sawdust from
a local sawmill, and the litter from in and around the houses
is removed regularly, composted, and sold or given away off
the farm to prevent excessive nitrogen accumulation.
Jake and Leigh-Ann are currently looking to buy a larger
property so they can close that nutrient loop, use the compost
on-farm and grow some of their own feed—and also so
they can run more birds to keep up with demand.
Proper feed mix, with adequate protein,
is a problem...
on the free range: The larger houses provide
free access to the mixed grass and weeds of the
paddock. Larger birds don’t even need to be
shut in at night.
Having more land of their own would also enable the Heuvels
to experiment with different types of feed crops for their
chooks, as the Kiwis say. One surprising challenge facing
the NZ organic chicken producer is feed value: because there
is very little soybean production—and virtually no organic
soybean production—in New Zealand (satisfactory varieties
have yet to be developed for this climate), it’s difficult
to put together a feed mix that supplies the birds with adequate
protein for their rapid growth rate.
Organic standards allow fish meal up to 2.7%, but none of
the artificial amino acids conventional producers rely on.
There’s discussion here now about allowing meat and
bone meal back into certified organic chicken feed (prohibited
two years ago because of BSE concerns), but Jake suspects
using meat and bone meal taints the flavor of chickens. “Conventional
birds have kind of a tallow-y taste to me compared to our
birds, and I think that’s partly where it comes from”
he comments. Flock health has improved since he switched to
a different feed supplier offering a more complex feed ration,
including field peas as well as corn and small grains.
... but disease control is an even bigger
All in all, however, disease control is the biggest challenge
for organic chicken production, Jake says. Organic rules allow
him to vaccinate against two diseases—Marek’s
disease and coccidiosis— and he’s currently using
a liquid probiotic product containing lactobacillus and other
beneficial bacteria, adding a small amount to the birds’
drinking water as well as misting it on to their feathers.
He uses a pyrethrum mix in a PTO-driven blast sprayer for
fly control in the composting area.
Even so, his birds suffer about 10% mortality, compared to
an average of 5% in conventional operations with prophylactic
antibiotic use. A related problem is commercial breed availability,
since the restrictions on importing live birds make it difficult
to obtain new or rare breeds. At the moment the Heuvels are
using a breed called Cobb 500—a standard white bird,
fast growing, but not the hardiest thing around—supplied
by a hatchery in Tuakau, northwest of Auckland, and there
are precious few other options.
The market for organic birds is still mostly
Jake is also reluctant to use rare breeds, since, as he puts
it, “You have to think about Joe Bloggs”—that
is, the average consumer—“what kind of a chicken
he expects, what he’s used to.” Most of the Heuvel
birds weigh in at 2.1 kg (4.6 lbs) live, 1.4 kg (3 lbs) processed,
making them #12 or #14 birds in the NZ grading system, or
average sized. But the retail price of a Heuvel certified
organic chicken is about twice what Joe Bloggs is used to
paying for a regular chook.
Not surprisingly, fully half of the Heuvel chickens go to
Auckland—New Zealand’s biggest urban center, with
some 1.8 million people—where they’re sold through
local butcher shops, neighborhood whole foods shops like I.E.
Organics in the suburb of Takapuna, as well as large chain
supermarkets like the New World in the trendy downtown neighborhood
of Victoria Park (which recently became NZ’s first supermarket
to receive certification as an organic handler). A small number
go to the less populous South Island.
Leigh-Ann Heuvel, who’s in charge of marketing for
the Willows Group, is working to expand their local markets.
“Our research suggests there should be 500 like-minded
people in Gisborne who should each eat an average of one chicken
a week,” says Jake. They recently offered five cases
of birds at the going conventional price to a local takeaway
restaurant, to see how the customers there respond. Once they
taste the difference, the Heuvels believe, they’ll be
Laura Sayre has been working on organic farms and writing
about agriculture since 1991.