| 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.
Agriquality seal, one of NZ's three main certifiers
Growth of Organics in New Zealand
sales in NZ have grown by 50% a year for the past 3
years. In 2002, the domestic market for organic products
was valued at NZ$70 million (US$38.5 million); another
$70 million was exported.
• Of NZ’s 80,000 farmers: 700 - 800 are
certified organic, another 10% consider their operations
partly organic, and 37% want to convert to organic within
5-10 years. Data courtesy of a recent survey conducted
by the University of Otago’s Centre for the Study
of Agriculture, Food & Environment.
• Although there are currently just 17 certified
organic dairy farms in New Zealand, the NZ dairy products
marketing board says the market could support up to
250 certified organic dairies.
• New Zealand’s largest organic certification
group, Bio-Gro certifies NZ$100 million (US$55 million)
of organic product a year. In 2001 Bio-Gro certified
31,185 ha (77,058 ac); AgriQuality, the second-largest
certifier, certified 13,184 ha (32,578 ac); Demeter
certified 2,155 ha (5,325 ac). Total certified acreage
in NZ has expanded sixfold since 1997.
• NZ’s first organic standards were drafted
in the early 1980s. At that time there were just a handful
of organic products for sale in stores; today there
are more than 3000.
• Late last year the Ministry of Agriculture
and Fisheries began OrganicFarmNZ, a new program designed
to offer low-cost certification to small-scale producers
marketing locally. Run in with help from the Soil &
Health Association of NZ the program is administered
by regional growers and audited by Bio-Gro.
• The Organic Products Exporters Group (OPENZ),
predicts organic exports could be as high as NZ$500
million by the year 2006. Currently most of NZ’s
organic exports go to Europe (41%), followed by Japan
• The Organic Federation of Aotearoa New Zealand
[Aotearoa is the Maori name for NZ] has drafted a national
strategy for NZ organics setting a financial target
of NZ$1 billion (US$550 mil) total sales by 2013.
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
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
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
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
|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
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
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
Laura Sayre has been working on organic farms and writing about
agriculture since 1991.