It is 7.30am in deepest, darkest winter.
As daylight breaks on mountainous, coastal Taranaki Urenui duck farmer Dawn Bendall is preparing her children for school before fossicking around in wood shavings up to 25 centimetres deep to retrieve 400 eggs.
“The ducks will dig up, they’ll lay and then they will cover the egg up again.
“It’s their little way of not letting the vermin get to the egg so I don’t know what they think of me,” she says, laughing.
Dawn and her husband Glen farm 500 white pekin ducks for eggs – and their health benefits.
“Because the ducks morsel under the ground they’re getting all of the slugs and bugs and, of course, that’s protein. And the eggs aren’t acidic – they’re an alkaline with omega 3,” she says.
But their nutritional value meant nothing to the couple until 2016, the year Dawn was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.
“I quickly had to have surgery and undergo six rounds of chemotherapy,” she says.
“The radiation was essentially killing all the fast-growing cells in my body. The simple act of eating was excruciating.
“One of the few foods I could tolerate without pain was duck eggs.
“The egg saved my life,” she says.
“So, that’s a big part of why we are farming and why we stick at it.
“It’s not just about us and the ducks. It’s about helping people.”
This year’s hatchings get a drink.
Dawn says so far the operation has cost the couple a large sum, but now they have 500 ducks the business will start to become more profitable.
“In reality, we could be making a lot more money out of chicken eggs because that’s a normal egg so there’s greater demand for it.
“People often say to me ‘they’re duck eggs? Have you got any normal eggs for sale?’”
Naturally, the couple have been trying to educate consumers about the health benefits of duck eggs.
They have good reason to do so.
Consumer demand for duck eggs is rapidly growing across Asia and eastern Europe. Dawn believes it will not be long until New Zealanders follow suit.
“Those who are buying these eggs know how good these are for health.
“And a trend we’re seeing is more and more Kiwis are becoming increasingly aware of what they should or shouldn’t be eating.”
Recently, the couple established a full distribution network and hope to shift consumer preferences from chicken eggs to duck.
“We’re dealing with a lot of people now and not just locals.
“We’ve got John Millward from Great Taste NZ working as our distributor.
“He’s helping to break down the preconceived ideas that people can have about duck eggs – mostly uninformed ideas around its taste and nutrition.
And it is working.
A growing number of high-end restaurants – Orphans Kitchen on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, for instance – are starting to use the eggs.
“Restaurant owners and chefs are finding that free-range duck eggs are absolutely amazing and they’re loving working with them,” Dawn says.
The Bendalls say their next steps are to grow their business even more and build a meat processing plant on their farm.
“We’d like to diversify our farm even more by adding duck meat to our mix,” Dawn says.
“Expansion requires time and money, of course. But it’s an investment we’re wanting to make over time because we’re equally wanting to grow our market.”
Glen says they hope to get up to 1000 ducks by the end of the year.
“It’s been really hard to get to this point.
“So many times we’ve wondered if it’s worth it or if we should just about walk away from it all.
“But then all of a sudden you see the benefits and hear the stories of how our eggs are helping others.