Weekend Herald - Canvas
FREE RANGE EGGS CRACKING RECORDS
Five years on, the move to free range eggs is benefitting farmers, consumers...and Mcdonald’s.
There’s an old saying – don’t put all your eggs in one basket, wisdom that free range chicken farmers and Mcdonald’s New Zealand are glad they ignored. Mcdonald’s crack about 13 million eggs annually in their restaurants and, for the last five years they have all been free range eggs sourced from the likes of Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs. That’s about 65 million free range eggs in total – a staggering amount, illustrating the runaway popularity of eggs emanating from hens free to roam around barns and fields.
William Sandle, account manager at Otaika Valley and a member of the family which established their free range farms in Whangarei and Kaharoa (near Rotorua), says the family and Mcdonald’s recognised early that the consumer push for free range eggs would be permanent – and insistent.
“We have never been able to keep up with demand,” says Sandle, who estimates that Mcdonald’s makes up about 20 per cent of Otaika Valley’s business. “The hunger for free range eggs has just grown and grown and we have just continued to try and keep up and make sure we always have a quality product.”
In 2015, Mcdonald’s became the first major egg user in New Zealand to announce it was moving to serve 100 per cent free range eggs in all its restaurants. Sandle says the chain’s far-sightedness has probably helped fuel the fastgrowing national preference. In the same vein, Sandle’s father Peter was a former caged chicken farmer before divining the trend and switching to free range farming in 2007.
Otaika Valley, along with Mcdonald’s other key egg supplier, Zeagold, needed to invest in and expand infrastructure to meet Mcdonald’s demand, with the transition taking 12-18 months to complete.
The rewards for doing so are not just from riding the wave of public opinion. A few years ago, the Sandles took a video of some of the 45,000 chickens they have at Whangarei leaving their barn in the morning. The video showed the birds streaming out of the barn, heading for a day in the open.
The video went viral – ending up on news bulletins internationally. Sandle fields a dumb question (how do you get all the chicken back in the barn every night?) with aplomb: “They are creatures of habit. In the morning, they lay their eggs and then head out for the day about 9am.
“They head back to the barn when it gets dark, settle down and then head out to forage again. Some don’t leave the barn – they prefer to stay in sometimes, some stay out at night but most of them are out every day, even when it’s wet.”
The definition of free range includes a bird-peracre measure. Officially 1000 birds per acre is enough for free range status; Otaika Valley has 750 chooks per acre.
“They have a lot of room in which to roam, scratch, forage and peck,” he says. “They get to do what chickens normally do.” They are fed with grain with no chemical additive and he says the farms produce eggs with a firm, rich yolk.
Mcdonald’s NZ spokesperson Simon Kenny says the decision to move to free range in 2015 showed not only that the company had a finger on the pulse of New Zealanders’ preferences but also that it realised how those preferences could change.
“Some of our franchisees began serving free range eggs through a group of South Island restaurants back in 2008. At the time, there weren’t enough free range eggs produced in New Zealand to supply the specification and volume we required for our menu items.
“More customers began to ask for a free range egg option and, by moving away from caged eggs completely, we answered those calls. Our franchisees knew our move would help create scale and surety for our suppliers to invest, and ultimately more overall supply of free range eggs for consumers.
“We’re proud to source more than 85 per cent of our ingredients from local Kiwi suppliers. We realise there’s always room for improvement and we’re constantly looking at ways we can adapt.”
Covid-19 and lockdown provided all members of the food industry with challenges and a worried Otaika Valley applied for the wage subsidy – but paid it straight back. Sandle says baking saved their bacon – as householders in lockdown responded with activities like teaching the kids to bake as well as providing food for the household.
When lockdown ended and those unforgettable pictures were taken of cars jamming streets for long-denied Mcdonald’s food, Otaika Valley went into overdrive to help meet the demand.
Sandle says the move to free range is continuing and that cage farming is beginning to die out as some farmers get closer to retirement and see what they have to do to keep up with new regulations governing the caging of the birds.
A thriller set in Auckland and Lake Tarawera, it explores the risks of “letting certain forms of surveillance into our lives and our homes”. While he’s cautious about writing “a political novel”, Pomare says his perspectives as a Maori author inform his writing.
“If I have the opportunity to point out the implications of being Maori in New Zealand, and some of the attitudes, with the ways characters interact, then you know by all means I’m going to do that and try to demonstrate these things as best I can.”
Pomare is fascinated by the tech world and how ideas that were once sci-fi are becoming reality (AI, automation, memory augmentation). “I’m really interested in the way that this will only enhance the divide between the rich and the poor, and between historically oppressed groups.”
Class is also an “over-riding interest” for Renée, who was raised by a Maori mother but had a “largely European” upbringing. “When I was little, that was the era when the largely Pakeha population thought Maori were going to die out,” recalls Renée, who feels that she herself is culturally “standing on a bridge and I’ve got one foot on one side and one foot on the other”.
For Manawatu, who both Renée and Pomare praise as a “fantastic author”, the desire for her and her family to have more contact with their own Maori culture is one of the drivers of her writing, including with Aue. “There’s some desperation in there in the characters to have some link to Te Ao Maori in their lives and around them, and the lack of it is an undercurrent of the story.”
While Manawatu doesn’t write “unapologetic crime fiction” like Pomare or the likes of Attica Locke, she also believes having more Maori, Pasifika, and other writers of colour flowing into genre/popular fiction along with poetry, short stories, or literary novels like hers, is a very good thing.
“To have a wider range of perspectives and more Maori writers published takes the weight off all Maori writers’ shoulders that they have to be representing something, for everyone.”
Aue’s listing for the Ngaio Marsh Awards raised some eyebrows among those who take a classic view of crime fiction. But our local awards were modelled after the Hammett Prize in North America (whose winners include Margaret Atwood) and celebrate “literary excellence” in tales by New Zealanders that are entwined with crime. As the international judging panel said, Manawatu “doesn’t use crime as a plot device but shows it woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives, defining them, sometimes destroying them, and serving as a perverse unifier”.
Like Once Were Warriors, a book to which Aue has been compared, Manawatu’s novel is dosed with domestic violence and gang life, subjects that strike close to home for the author and which did cause her concern in the writing and since. Would another violence-tinged portrayal of Maori characters amplify real-life prejudice? “I didn’t think about the people who could come to my story without the compassion or understanding of history, or of the damage of colonisation.”
That ongoing concern illustrates why Manawatu believes having a greater number and range of Maori writers published is so vital — not just as role models “so that people like my daughter have people to look up to”, but to showcase a broader range of stories and diffuse any singular representation that may be wrongly generalised as emblematic of Maori culture.
With overseas university studies having shown that reading fiction is a vehicle for empathy, having a diverse range of voices published is vital. Particularly in popular genres like crime fiction, which reach so many readers.
“I think what reading does, whether it’s a crime novel or whatever, is that we learn about other people,” says Renée. “And while a crime novel may be more carefully structured around a certain type of event, like a murder, it doesn’t really alter the fact that we’re talking about people in the same way perhaps as the authors who regard themselves as more literary writers do. We’ve just chosen this different form.”
The winners of the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards will be revealed on October 31 as part of the Word Christchurch Spring Festival. Becky Manawatu and Renée will be appearing at multiple events during the festival.