Monday, 26 November 2018

Chickens and Eggs, Pasture to Plate

I had an interesting day out last weekend on the Horowhenua Taste Trail, where a handful of Horowhenua food producers--Horowhenua is a region in New Zealand--opened their doors and offered factory tours, tastings, and such to the public. At some venues, various restaurants and chefs had set up to offer “tasting plates” made with the products. The idea of this annual event is to share with ordinary people the “paddock to plate” process.

I drove up to the town of Foxton for my first venue, and started there with a visit to Turk’s chicken. Now I don’t think a chicken factory is a happy place, but I do think knowing where food comes from is important knowledge. Still, this is truly red pill, blue pill territory, or to quote the government propaganda in George Orwell’s novel 1984, “Ignorance is Bliss”.  Not everybody wants to know, or cares to see.

Turks produces corn-fed (not GMO corn) free-range “premium” chicken and chicken products that are sold primarily around the North Island of New Zealand. They are a local company employing over 200 workers and contractors in the operation, so they are a major employer in this small, rural town. They process around 125,000 chickens a week.

38 day old Turk's chickens
We didn’t get an opportunity to see the free-range chickens in the barns and paddocks run by Turks’ contractors, but at the entrance as we went in, they showed us a few chickens: first a bunch of fluffy yellow 2-day-old chicks you could pick up, and then some larger birds in a larger pen that were 38 days old: grossly overweight, and somewhat featherless, two days short of slaughter. Given the chickens are kept in barns until they are 3 weeks old, and they are killed just shy of 6 weeks’ old, their “free-range life” outdoors is pretty short. You can see more about the barns and outdoor spaces, and learn about the company, in this clip from the tv show “Rural Delivery”.

In the Turks factory, sample chicken (not a working day)
On tour inside the factory (they don’t operate on weekends), we viewed a huge and efficient, spotlessly clean stainless steel processing plant, and in each room workers explained what they do and what the various machines do. This is a big factory, highly automated, and Turks workers are clearly proud of the efficiencies they have in butchering, marinating, processing, bagging, packaging, and boxing their premium products, in whatever cuts and sizes their customers request. Once the breast meat has been removed and the legs and thighs and wings (nibbles) cut off, a machine extracts all the “meat” from stripped carcasses for human consumption, and that will be formed into various chicken products like nuggets and patties and sausages; the residual bone material is ground and extracted for use in pet food. Nothing goes to waste. In the small goods room they have smokers for smoking chicken and chicken sausages. In another room, they mix marinades, bag, and box. It’s all very clinical and efficient, designed to produce a variety of safe chicken products for the commercial market.

Outside the factory, the barbeques were going full-bore with generous samples of barbequed chicken breast pieces prepared with various marinades, sizzling hot off the grill, available on platters, free for sampling. I must confess that my appetite for chicken, low to begin with as I’m mostly vegetarian, had pretty much disappeared by this point (though it was lunch time), but in the spirit of the event, I tried a couple of pieces.

From the Foxton Turks factory I drove south to the town of Levin, and set off to explore more about chickens at the Ultimate Egg Company. This free-range egg “factory” gets an SPCA blue tick, and an SPCA lady was there talking to visitors about chicken welfare, and showing examples of the cramped single and colony cages used on some farms (not this one). All of The Ultimate Egg Company’s chickens are free to move about the barns and have access to the outdoors. None are caged.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the front paddock
What I noticed first off is that the paddock out the front, visible from the front driveway, is quite appealing with lots of grass, big trees, little shade houses for the birds, and what appear to be lots of big, brown, happy-looking chickens poking about, exploring the paddock, and behaving like chickens (though I note their beaks had been clipped). As you walk down the row of barns--there were five or six long shed/barns--the paddocks outside the barns appeared less inviting with less grass and few trees, and fewer chickens were seen out frolicking. Outside the farthest barn, half a dozen chickens pecked aimlessly at the dirt outside the doorways in a mostly bare paddock, while all the rest stayed crowded in the barn, hen-pecking and hen-pecked. They could go out—the doors were open--but chose not to. I was surprised that this was the barn they allowed us to look inside.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the barn
I was most heart-wrenched by a hen just on the other side of the fence in that farthest paddock (one of the few outside) whose tail feathers had all been plucked out leaving a bare-skin behind, and whose comb appeared to have been virtually pecked off as well. She had made it outside, but to what? Dirt and stones, a bit of grass farther away, and of course she would have to go back inside the barn for food and water and to lay her requisite egg. It was the saddest sight I saw all day. I just wanted to pick her up, give her a cuddle, and bring her home.

Ultimate Eggs stacked on pallets
The Ultimate Egg Company is a smaller operation than Turks, but much is still automated: hundreds of eggs roll down conveyor belts from the barns and are mechanically sorted and deposited on trays. An inspector looks for cracks and breaks, then stacks the trays onto pallets which are lifted into trucks with a fork-lift. The Ultimate Egg Company was in operation the day we were there (obviously chickens don’t take a day off), and I don’t remember the stats we were told about how many employees they have, or how many chickens, or how many eggs are produced, and their website does not supply that information. I seem to remember someone saying the chickens are kept for about two years before they too end up as meat birds.

After these two chicken stops, I meandered on to several other food producers (Woodhaven Gardens, Genoese Pesto, and Thoroughbread Foods who make bread) before calling it a day. In short, I can say those were more pleasant stops, but not the topic of this post.

I think it is brave of producers like Turks and the Ultimate Egg Company to open their doors like this to the public. I don’t think it is likely to generate new or more enthusiastic customers.  It’s easy to be beguiled in the supermarket by those “free range” labels where chickens and eggs are sold, and to assume that those chickens have led reasonably pleasant lives before their deaths. Mostly, I think they do not. I did not find either of these visits made me want to go out and buy either chicken or eggs, or to eat them and support these industries. What I missed most was some recognition that these chickens are sentient animals with personalities and lives that matter, not just “products”. The egg production process seemed as mechanical and product-oriented as the meat factory. None of these chickens—and their numbers are vast—is allowed to have a name, a personality, or the recognition of a being that matters as anything other than as a mechanical (though breathing) egg producer, or carcass for processing. 

And so… While this appears to be a post about chickens and eggs, I think it’s really more a post about who we are as human beings. Sobering. Many things in this world make me sad.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

House Shopping Around the World

I used to work in real estate, and I have always loved houses. I also love to travel. This post combines the two, if only via the internet.

Wellington’s booming house prices continually make the news, as do Auckland’s house prices. At the moment, the average sale price for a house in Wellington is NZ$615,000 for a 3-4 bedroom home—very high by international standards we are told. I thought it might be interesting to see what sort of house this budget would buy in some other parts of the world.

Karori Townhouse
First, a Wellington home—my baseline. Most houses here are marketed without price:  "auction", "tender", or “by negotiation” is what’s usually in the price box, so it is hard to guess what a property will sell for. One house currently on the market with an actual price indicator (“offers above NZ$595,000”) is a modern two-storey, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom townhouse with a single garage in the city suburb of Karori. It offers a floor area of 127m2 and a tiny land area of 142m2 in a new development.  If this front photo is anything to go by, it can be described as "box-like". By going to further-out suburbs, it is possible to find older, 3-bedroom houses with a bit of garden space in this price range. (For comparison sake, at the moment, NZ$595,000 = US$402,000, 354,000, £307,500 and C$547,000).

Wellington is a coastal city (and NZ’s capital) with a population of a little over 400,000. Where practicable, I’ve tried to echo that, and other similar traits, to some extent, in my global property search.  Next stop? Portland, Oregon, USA.

I lived in Oregon for two years, many years ago, and I loved it there. Portland is a city of 648,000 and is situated on the Columbia River, but it is not far from the coast and it is officially a major shipping port. It is famous for coffee, craft beer, parks, and an environmentally-aware attitude. It is surrounded by wine country, dairy farms, forestry, and orchards, and nearby Mt Hood attracts skiers, hikers, mountaineers, and photographers. Good place to live.

Portland house
A lovely-looking house in a nice suburb in Portland has an asking price of US$399,500 (NZ$592,000). This 246m2 single-storey house on just under half an acre of landscaped woodland has 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and an internal-access double garage. The interior is modern and spacious with high, light-coloured timber ceilings. They don’t mention double glazing or central heating, but this is a modern American home so one can safely assume both.

Multi-cultural Vancouver, Canada, population 632,000, is also a coastal city and, like Wellington, is famous for sky-high real estate prices. Also like Wellington, it is coastal, environmentally-focused, artsy, and full of beautiful parks.

I found no listings for free-standing houses in Vancouver in this price range at all, only condominiums (sort of what in NZ we call “unit title”, or “units”). For C$549,000 (NZ$618,000) you can buy a 97m2 2-bedroom, 2-bath corner ground-floor unit in North Vancouver with a monthly fee of C$400, no dogs allowed. As with an American home, one can assume double glazing and central heating. But no bargains!

Taking a hop, skip and a great, big jump over to the UK, the city of Bristol is coastal like Wellington, and has a population of 440,000. It has a thriving arts and creative technology scene, was the first British city to be named “European Green Capital”, and it too has lovely parks and open spaces.

My internet browse in Bristol found an attractive and modernized 3-bedroom 1-bath semi-detached 2-storey home with a conservatory, single garage, and a large back garden. It is double-glazed, has a gas fire, and has a pleasant rural outlook. The house and section size were not noted on the internet listing. This is priced at £325,000 (NZ$629,000), a smidgen over our budget but asking prices are often a bit higher than what a seller will actually accept.

Valencia villa
I’ve only been to Spain once, but I immediately fell in love with this vibrant, sunny country. Valencia is a popular and beautiful coastal city, with a population about twice the size of Wellington, so I did a little outreach from there into the countryside. Within a 30-minute drive of central Valencia, I found a charming, modern two-storey Spanish villa of 265m2 with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a pretty swimming pool with an asking price of (NZ$606,000). At 400m2, the section is small but nicely landscaped and easily managed, and the property appears to be surrounded by similar nice houses.

Trans-Tasman rivalry being what it is, I can’t leave Australia out of the mix. While Melbourne and Brisbane beckon many Kiwis, both cities are really large. So for my comparison I’ve jumped to smaller Newcastle, a bit north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast, with a population of 550,000. Newcastle has the largest coal-exporting harbour in the world, but it is also known for great surf beaches, a lovely climate, good food, and proximity to not only the beaches but also to the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie.

The Newcastle housing market in this price range seems to be dominated by 2-bedroom apartments, but I found a nice, modern, 2-storey, 2-bedroom + study, 2-bathroom 115m2 townhouse with a single garage and a pretty private courtyard for A$550,000 (NZ$591,000) in a complex of 8 ground-floor units. It’s pretty similar to the Wellington offering, although—I thought-- more attractive. 

Maroochydore house
For better value for money, a quick browse up on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane yields a number of modern 3- and 4-bedroom homes on small to mid-sized sections. This one in Maroochydore, for example, is a single-story, modern and rather pretty home with 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a double carport on an 807m2 section. The price is “buyer enquiry over $570,000” (NZ$613,000).

Thailand is a popular holiday destination for a lot of folks, and the island of Koh Samui (population 65,000) has many Western residents as well as holiday makers. No wonder. Money goes quite a long way in Thailand. For 12,000,000 Thai baht (NZ$538,000) you can buy a brand new single storey 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom (all bedrooms have ensuites, plus there’s a guest bathroom off the living area) 200m2 house on a 300m2 section with a private infinity pool, just 300 metres from popular Chawang Beach in a new development. It has sea views. It is—in a word—gorgeous! I believe foreigners can only buy property lease-hold there.

Bali villa pool
Bali is another tourist hotspot. Most properties there are leasehold. For around 6 billion Indonesian Rupiah (that’s NZ$607,000) you can get a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom (but tiny tourist-sized kitchen!) villa with private pool, 5 minutes’ walk from the beach at Sanur. Or a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom property with a small private pool and large, modern kitchen on a 300m2 section in Seminyak. Or a 2-storey, 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom 300m2 “villa” with private pool and sea view in Jimbaran near the airport—modern, white, elegant, and curvy—available freehold. (Actually, that last one is listed at 7 billion—don’t you feel rich?--but with numbers like these, and we’re only dreaming anyway, what’s an extra billion or so?)

So there you have it—a quick hop around the world looking at real estate. I think that little house in Karori in Wellington looks very basic for over half a million dollars. I think the Portland house comes out as my favourite to actually live in, for the money. Both Bristol and Valencia would be great bases for exploring Europe, if one could work a lifestyle out of either city, and both of those houses are nice. The Sunshine Coast of Australia wouldn't be a bad place to park, and many Kiwis do. Vancouver is just crazy expensive—yah, nah—though it is one of my favourite cities to visit (feels a bit like “home”—Southeast Alaska). And Koh Samui and Bali? Ah, they’re gorgeous of course, but I’d rather just go there on holiday… I’m not a full-time tropics girl myself…