A flock of our members recently visited Big Paddock farm in Whangaripo Valley, where they met some very friendly chooks. Maria Middlestead was impressed…
These ladies are liberated. All 50,000 of them. They spend the morning dining, strolling and dust bathing, which is like a body scrub at a day spa. They prefer to do this communally so they can chat.
At Whangaripo valley near Matakana, we walked the farm as hens followed with friendly interest. They were happy to be held and stroked, when not pecking at our worm-like shoelaces. Nearby cattle help to scare off predatory hawks and feral cats.
Owners Mathew and Jill Quested were our hosts. Matthew gave us a tour while correcting common assumptions. Related birds in the wild are used to being in flocks of tens of thousands. Free-range hens do not have the strictly controlled diets of their caged cousins, so egg sizes vary and are a nuisance to grade. Small eggs tend to be from younger hens and might be more nutritious. Ideally eggs should be eaten within four to five days of laying, but in the supermarket are probably 35 days old. Deep orange yolks are usually due to synthetically coloured feed. Even if organic feed is used there is no guarantee it is non-GMO. Free-range meat chickens need to be kept indoors for the first 22 days. Surprisingly, they are then able to move outside for only 10 days until slaughter.
Wonderfully little is wasted at Big Paddock. Older eggs are wanted by bakers for making the best meringue. Eggs found in the paddock are given to pigs. Old birds are used for stewing (prized for flavour by savvy Chinese) or later yet for pet food. Excrement from the roost is used as fertiliser by farmers who then need less chemicals.
Light triggers laying. If you could look inside a hen there would be about 35 eggs in different stages of development. As one reaches maturity a hard calcium shell is created. We were shown one which had been expelled without a calcium exterior. It could be squeezed like a bouncy ball.
And after all this enlightenment, there was brunch: scrambled eggs with chives, two types of local smoked salmon with leafy greens, warm artisan bread and homemade cinnamon brioche. Jill produced all this with relaxed competence in the cosy farm staff kitchen while a proprietary hen walked in for a visit.