Hatching a business plan leads to loving ‘chicken lady’ role

Natalie Stocker spreads her day between chicken rearing, farm work and co-ordinating on-farm...
Natalie Stocker spreads her day between chicken rearing, farm work and co-ordinating on-farm research for Southland’s Hedgehope-Makarewa Catchment Group. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
While running a sheep and beef operation with family, Natalie Stocker and her fiance Adam Sutton are spreading their wings in the business of chicken rearing.

Miss Stocker, who also works off-farm for Southland’s Hedgehope-Makarewa Catchment Group, said she was likely destined to become the "crazy chicken lady".

After finishing her agricultural science degree at Lincoln University, she spent 10 years in the seed industry in Christchurch and always kept a couple of chickens in the backyard.

When she moved to her fiance’s family farm in South Canterbury, she was keen to run a flock of chickens and discovered her aunt and uncle, who had been rearing hens for domestic customers, were selling up.

"We were keen to diversify the farming business, so we took over their operation and it’s all gone a little crazy from there," she said.

After starting the business early last year, the couple now get a new batch of 700 chicks every six weeks and rear them for both commercial free range poultry farms and domestic customers.

They supply commercial farms with pullets at 16 weeks old and domestic customers with 18-week, point of lay birds.

The venture had been "an incredibly huge learning curve, one we may not have started had we known what we know now", she said.

One of the biggest challenges was teaching the hens to perch.

"We don’t have all the mod cons with this new business. It’s very much based around No8 wire sort of thinking."

Hens would gravitate to moonlight and could smother in the corner of the chook run if they were not taught to stay on their perch.

"It can be a real social life killer when you are at a barbecue in the summer months and have to leave at dusk to go put your chickens on their perch," she said, laughing.

Her favourite part of the job was her delivery run to domestic buyers.

"I can take up to 200 in a trailer Adam custom made for me and I will deliver to direct people’s chicken coops.

"I love that connection with people and the excitement that comes from children when the ‘chicken lady’ arrives."

Alongside the chicken rearing and helping on the farm "with the big jobs, as required", Miss Stocker is a pilot study co-ordinator for the catchment group.

"The group got funding from Thriving Southland to really take a front foot approach in light of the regulatory changes the region is facing.

"We are studying different cultivation practices in winter forage crops and the effect ... on crop yield, grazing, utilisation and effect on soil properties."

While this year was a relatively small, on-farm pilot study working alongside 10 sheep, beef and dairy farmers, she was confident it would likely lead into a larger project.

"I have been blown away by the level of buy-in and engagement from farmers.

"Southlanders are so conscious of public perception and are very aware of their social obligations; they want to do what’s required of them on a regulatory level but they are also keen to think outside the square and find new solutions to these big problems they are faced with."

Between chickens, farming and co-ordinating on-farm research, there was never a dull moment for Miss Stocker.

"We do sometimes look like we are running around like headless chickens, for want of a better phrase."

- By Alice Scott

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