Kiwi won’t chicken out on farming in Japan

by Stephen Carr

“Red eggs,” says Andrew Hitchings, using the Japanese term for brown eggs, “are better quality than white.”

Hitchings, a 46-year-old New Zealander who helps run a chicken farm in Gifu Prefecture, says the secret lies in the formula of the farm’s chicken feed. Exactly how the mixture is blended at the Katsumata Tamago, a family farm near the city of Mizunami in the southeastern part of the prefecture, is a known only to the patriarch of the enterprise, Hitchings’ father-in-law, Tokio Katsumata, and his two sons.

“It’s a tricky business mixing the feed, which can rot quickly, and I prefer to leave it to them,” he says.

He does divulge, though, that the feed is 60 percent corn and 15 percent beans. Ground up sea shells make up 10 percent of the mix, apparently necessary for the formation of the egg shells inside the hens’ bodies. Some 2 percent to 3 percent is fish oil and there are small amounts of ginger and paprika. Less than 1 percent consists of grape sugar, pork and chicken. Beef was once an ingredient used in trace amounts by chicken farms, but it has been dropped since the emergence of mad cow disease.

The farm buys its chicks, all female, in bulk for ¥200 each when they are 2 or 3 days old. They start laying when they are 5 1/2 months old and produce eggs for about a year. When their 1 1/2-year lives are over, some are sold as meat and the rest taken away by a processing company that grinds them up into products like pet food ingredients.

The farm, set among Gifu’s picturesque, tree-covered hillsides, consists of several long sheds containing about 15,000 chickens, two to a cage, which lay up to 12,000 eggs a day.

Katsumata Tamago was started 40 years ago when Tokio Katsumata decided he no longer wished to remain a salaryman. The generous subsidies then available for private initiatives was another inducement. His wife, Yukiko, liked the idea of egg producing and so they set up the farm. They found a wholesaler who bought their eggs and they followed this simple business model for the next 25 years.

When the couple’s eldest of three children, Kumiko, went abroad she realized for the first time how good her family’s farm eggs were, with their rich orange yolks. She was in New Zealand at the age of 28 and it struck her that she could not find good-tasting eggs there.

She arranged to stay in a flat in Christchurch. This was where Hitchings had the strange experience of arriving home one day to find a Japanese woman he had never seen before who could not speak much English, suddenly in residence. His roommates had invited her to stay and had been unable to contact him to explain the new arrangement. She stayed nearly five months and the two became an item.

When Kumiko’s yearlong working holiday visa was at an end, she had to return to Japan and Hitchings was not sure he would see her again.

At this time, 1994, the egg farm was in a very different business environment from its beginnings. The government subsidies were long gone, eggs were much cheaper and Japan’s long economic stagnation had set in.

Kumiko thought the quality of her family’s eggs had no chance of standing out, while their only route to market lay through a wholesaler who mixed them with other producers’ eggs before they arrived in shops and supermarkets. Consumers had no idea where the eggs had come from. There was no public face to the venture. Some other chicken farms in the Mizunami area were 10 to 20 times the size of Katsumata Tamago.

She thought the family should market their own eggs and an obvious way to do this was by selling them door-to-door. Her mother said, “I would rather die than do door-to-door sales.” But Kumiko had other ideas and contacted Hitchings in New Zealand. She asked him, to his surprise, to join her in the venture.

He came to Japan for the first time with a smattering of Japanese and the pair set about targeting sales prospects in the area. Obvious potential clients were the numerous ceramics companies in the vicinity of the two nearest towns, Mizunami and Toki.

“Kumiko is a brazen sort, well-suited to this type of job,” says Hitchings. The couple bought a small, open-backed van and began visiting local potteries. They asked if they could sell their eggs at lunch time in the firms’ courtyards, the spaces where trucks were loaded. There were often other stalls set up there too, selling things like clothes.

Hitchings also had the idea of the Katsumata Tamago van driving around announcing itself with amplified music. It became well known for its signature song “Saru no Kagoya” (“The Monkey’s Basket”) about a monkey needing its daily feed. Another of his ideas was selling chicken droppings, used by gardeners as fertilizer, along with the eggs. The droppings were put into 12.5-kg bags and taken out with the egg deliveries directly to customers.

They drove to offices and other small businesses, but Kumiko also insisted on stopping at unexpected places like hospitals and schools, trying to find new clients. “It probably looked odd to some visiting board of education official to see one of our egg boxes set up in the hallway of a school, inviting people to buy,” says Hitchings, “but it worked.”

“The honesty box idea also functioned a lot better than it would back at home. We had occasional small losses but in New Zealand the money, the eggs and the box — the lot — would all have been gone!”

“Kumiko did the donkey work of finding door-to-door customers and after I arrived we door-knocked together for two weeks.” But then, despite the language barrier, Hitchings began knocking on doors by himself.

There were sometimes mixups over numbers, confusion about whether he was talking about prices or amounts of eggs. They had to be resolved by pointing and finger gestures. Sometimes he found himself talking to other foreigners without much Japanese in noisy factories. The Gifu dialect also had him stumped at times. “But I used to learn a new phrase or two every day and being plunged in at the deep end like that was a great way to improve.”

The two also knocked on the doors of private houses. Householders tended to appreciate the convenience of not having to fetch easily breakable eggs back from the supermarket. In Hitchings’ case, these occasions often provided opportunities for some fun, with customers’ children trying out English phrases on the unusual salesman.

A covered truck was bought, so the eggs in the back no longer got wet when it rained. The couple, going out five or six days a week, found that certain days were better than others for sales. Monday was not a good day, with family refrigerators often well stocked after weekend shopping. Wednesday, Thursday or Friday were much better, when households were likely to be running out of eggs.

There were a finite number of companies around Mizunami and Toki where eggs could be sold. So they went to find new customers beyond these areas.

A year after Hitchings’ arrival in Japan, he and Kumiko got married.

A new venture, two years later, was for Katsumata Tamago, now reasonably well known, to set up its own shop. On Gifu’s busy prefectural route No. 66, the shop is a homely sort of place, selling cakes, snacks, soft drinks, Korean seaweed and lots of bags and boxes of eggs. Prices start at ¥350 for a 900-gram bag, going up to ¥630 for a box of 20. There is also an exotic variety called “first born” eggs, the produce of chickens just starting to lay.

The prices are higher than at supermarkets, where a box of 10 typically sells for ¥180 to ¥200 and is sometimes discounted as low as ¥100. But Katsumata Tamago’s eggs are aimed at a different market, allowing higher mark-ups for quality. Some hens from the farm which have ended their egg laying days are sold as meat. The shop also sells bags of chicken droppings fertilizer.

Spring is a busy time of year for the shop when people venture out into the countryside more for day trips, for instance to the several nearby golf courses. When the shop is closed there are egg dispensing vending machines outside. There are six other automated vending points around the locality.

Hitchings worked full time for the chicken farm for his first eight years in Japan. But now he divides his time between the family business and English teaching. The work of the farm, the door-to-door deliveries and looking after the shop is done by immediate family, near relatives and neighbors. Most are part-timers. There are 10 grandchildren of the founding couple to ensure Katsumata Tamago remains a family concern.

The chicken farm remains a constantly busy operation. Hitchings’ father-in-law Tokio, now 70, says he was 60 before the whole family took a break together. They went to a hot springs resort, driving down the highway when the working day was over. “We stayed the night and came back to the farm the next day for a 9 a.m. start.”

Making sure the farm is fully productive means protecting the chickens from colds and illnesses like bird flu. All the birds have an injection at least twice in their lives. Eye infections are dealt with by injections in the wing. Otherwise they are given ¥50 shots in the rear. Sometimes as many as 2,000 birds are injected in one session, taking three workers a whole morning to complete. “A lot fewer of them die nowadays compared to previous times, because of modern medicines,” says Hitchings.

Another hazard they have to be protected from is foxes. These usually will not go near half gates at shed entrances or boxes nearby, fearing traps. But foxes sometimes get through holes in the sheds. They then try to wrench the birds out of their cages, sometimes succeeding, but more likely pulling off the chickens’ heads. A raid by a fox can leave four or five dead birds and on occasion as many as 20 to 30.

One day that happened to be April 1, Hitchings said the thought occurred to him that 100 dead chickens would be a bad April Fool’s Day joke. Three days later that was just what he found. “You could say I had egg all over my face,” he laughs.