New Zealand Natural, Pukekohe

Derek Rolston is a perfectionist. A valuable trait when you are farming free range hens. Cleanliness, routine and immaculate record keeping translate directly into happy, healthy hens.

Derek and wife Sonia own and run the New Zealand Natural free range egg farm in Pukekohe.

As recently as 2013, the couple were living in East Auckland, in the thick of suburbia. Sonia was raising the couple’s two boys and Derek was commuting into the city for work.

The move to egg farming

The couple sold their house and moved to 4 hectares of prime, rolling country, where they run Brown Shaver free range hens and quail. The 500 quail produce highly sought after eggs for the restaurant scene and are also stocked in East Auckland and New Market vege shops. “Demand is huge and we are struggling to expand fast enough to keep abreast of the growing demand."

Both Derek and Sonia grew up with parents who had a handful of laying hens. And, even back in Howick, they ran a few hens of their own. But going from five to 5000 did require a lot of reading, hard work and drawing on their combined knowledge.

The first six years of Derek’s career were spent building industrial computers. It was through a work contact that he learned a spring-making apprenticeship was coming up and he grabbed the opportunity.

“Spring making is not that different to egg farming. Both are high volume enterprises where the product has to be exactly right. Whether you’re producing parts for an engine or a quality food product, systems are critical.

“In our case, barns must be clean, water filtered and sterilised, paddocks mowed regularly – these activities are not left to chance. Everything has to be perfect and that’s where being well organised keeps us humming.”

Settling the hens in

“My favourite time is when new hens arrive. The barn is sparkling clean and the hens are coming into surroundings that are new to them. They can be quite skittish. For the first two or three days, one of us stays in the shed. We’ll read a book and keep an eye on them. It settles the hens and gets them used to our presence.

“After a few days, we start turning the lights out for a period and ease the girls into a routine. They are creatures of habit and soon get into the swing of things.”

The effect of grass on yolk colour

The New Zealand Natural hens enjoy pasture all year round, thanks to Derek strategically re-grassing with species that keep growing, regardless of the season.

“Our yolks tend to be golden. They look amazing. My Mum is a good baker and my parents will come to visit. I’m sure it’s not to see us or the children, but to take home as many eggs as they can get their hands on.”

“Small scale” appeals

“We’re small enough that we can really look after the hens. If they are sick or injured, we treat them, before returning them to the flock.

“Actually, there’s one here that had an accident and I pulled her out of the flock until she came right. Now she follows me around the shed, even though she’s back with the other hens.”

The scale also works well, logistically. “Nothing is automated. It’s much more satisfying to hand pick and pack. It makes our eggs special. We have handled them with care –from where they were laid in the nest, into the box. I love that.

“Craft Farmers’ Co-op is such a good fit or us. It tells the story of how we farm and it lets us keep our special eggs, special.”

Check out our favourite egg recipe here »