Organic poultry production: a fledgling industry in New Zealand
Jake and Leigh-Ann Heuvel – currently raising and processing 2600 free-range, certified organic “chooks” each week – are the only larger scale organic producers in New Zealand. Disease control is their biggest challenge ... that, and keeping up with customer demand.

By Laura Sayre

Home 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 either side.

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.

Biosecurity 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 it here.

“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 meat processing.

(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 (MAF).

Pastured birds in New Zealand have few natural predators

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...

Home 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 challenge

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 urban

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 convinced.

Laura Sayre has been working on organic farms and writing about agriculture since 1991.