I’m in the sidecar. We’re driving from Chincha to Nazca along the coast of Peru, probably the last coast we’re going to see for a while since we have now decided to head inland for the rest of our trip, abandoning the desert wastelands of Northern Chile’s Atacama and instead curving in and up towards Titicaca, Bolivia and Northern Argentina.
We have just spent two magical days at the farm, La Calera, of Peru’s biggest egg producer. 4 million hens lay 2.5 million eggs a day. The farm employs around 1,500 people from nearby Chincha, prvinding much needed jobs for a town ravaged by earthquake only 2 years ago. The man behind the the farm, this entire massive enterprise, is Tayo Masias. He and his wife of 45 years Beatriz, live on a hacienda built by Jesuits in the middle of it all.
The couple have weathered many storms over the years, surviving assassination attempts on Tayo’s life and losing everything to agrarian reform, but they have come back stronger. Tayo, at our request, gives us a detailed and lengthy tour of the farm. Being urban born and raised, I find it completely fascinating. Tayo took land which no one wanted – desert land between the coastal hills which previously was prety much uncultivated, and he turned it into something enormous. As well as the chickens, which provide 95% of the farm’s profit, they produce tangerines, grapes, avocados and oranges. Last year, the citrus export from La Calera accounted for 40% of the fruit exported from Peru. Rows and rows of fruit trees stretch to the base of the sandy hills which rise up all around. Tayo loves what he does. he is constantly innovating and is proud to have been the one to introduce a lot of farming technologies used in Peru today from abroad.
One of his crowning innovations is the incorporation of biogas into the workings of the farm: the chickens’ guano is used to create energy, water and fertilizer for the farm. He has built huge tanks where the chicken shit is mixed with water and churned, the released methane and CO2 are then used to heat the chicken pens. The water, infused with the rich nutrients of the excrement, is then filtered and piped out to the growing plants. Tayo shows us how he has managed to use rocky land previouly deemed barren. The farm plants lemon trees into the dusty rocky land. The roots are tenacious and take well, they are nourished not by fertilizer, but by irrigation with this nutrient water. Once the roots have taken and the tree begins to grow, tangerine shoots are grafted into the sturdy lemon roots and so the tree grows from the rocks. Quite unbelievable.
During the time of agrarian reform in 1970, the government took everything from Tayo and distributed it amongst the peasants. Armed soldiers arrived at the hacienda one morning as Beatriz was sewing, and told them of the plans. Slowly, Tayo has built up the 2 hectares he was left with. He has gradually been buying back the land in the valley from the peasants, and the farm now stretches to 1,500 hectares.
The chickens are housed in cages which Tayo himself devised, all of which are built on the farm. The chicken buildings are numerous and extend up the hills into land which was thought unusable. Each pen houses 20,000 chickens, there are three per cage, and as they lay, the eggs roll down to a little tray where they are colected by hand. 2.5 million a day. The time of day that they lay, we learn, depends on the time of day they are fed. Usually, the afternoon feed will result in a morning egg. Brilliant, as regimented as a poo. 50% of the hens are red, 45% black and 5% white. The white ones lay the most eggs, but they don’t sell for much ($1 per chicken at the end for their meat), the red ones lay fairly well and are worth $3 per chicken for their meat, and the black ones lay the least well, but can be sold at $5 a hen at the end of their useful lives. The farm earns $2m a day and supplies Peru’s supermarkets with every single egg on their shelves.
Unlike in the States and Brazil, where corn is grown so can be bought cheap, Peru has to import its chicken feed. (Despite being the land where corn came from, says Tayo!) Which means that it is expensive, so Tayo has devised other ways to feed the chickens to supplement the corn he imports. Some of the chicken guano is laid out in the sun to dry, from which feed is created. (The smell at the places where the chicken shit is dried is overpoweringly strong…) This accounts for 10% off the feed of the chickens. He refines low grade fishmeal in huge tanks, improving the quality then incorporating it into the chicken feed which means that the eggs have Omega 3 in them. Japan, one of the country’s where La Calera’s produce is exported to, has strict rules about antibiotics and use of mediacation, so the chickens are not over medicated. Antibitoics are only used on the very small chickens.
We were taken to the housing for the chicks (1 million of the chickens on the farm are there for producing more chickens). The pen is enclosed (the chicks need to be kept warm – whereas older hens can be kept in the open air with only a roof). The smell is pretty intense, a musty, shitty smell. The workers are hard at work cutting off the beaks of the chicks. This prevents them from hurting each other later. 20,000 chicks have the points of their beaks removed daily by this team of workers. The procedure is swift and effective. Chicks are picked out of the group cages, held tightly, their beaks are then inserted into a small hole in a machine, a blade lowered quickly and the end is cut off. The worker then holds the remaining beak (now about 3mm shorter) against a red hot plate, burning it and sealing the new beak. The chicks are then administered with 3 innoculations and put into a cage with other stumpy beaked chicks.
Everything on the farm is done by hand, to create jobs, Tayo says. He is a hugely socially responsible boss. The other big employer in Chincha is a textile plant, employing 3,000 workers. Tayo’s whole approach to employment is that he wants his workers to feel proud to work for La Calera. He pays 3 times as much as the textile plant to the workers. Breakfast and lunch are provided to the 1,500 employees daily, and transportation to and from Chincha. He gives them all insurance and benefits. 2 years ago, the town suffered a devastating 7.9 earthquake which killed 500, and rendered most of the inhabitants homeless. Tayo decided to build houses for the workers, so he currently is in the process of constructing 1,000 homes for the workers of La Calera. And the houses are big too – 3 bedrooms and very comfortable. The government have encouraged the scheme and are helping to pay for it, but Tayo is stumping up a lot of the cash himself: every home costs the government $6k, him $2k and the worker a $2k mortgage.
That’s not to say that he’s adored – he has survived one assassination attempt, where he was driving on his farm and ten armed men leapt out and peppered the car with bullets (he says that he will always drive a Jeep because they saved his life), the passenger sustained wounds to his leg. And last month, when he drove into Cincha to pay the workers, he was held up and the robbed of the money.
For this reason, Tayo has always been reluctant to advertise the name of La Calera farm – the eggs have always been in unmarked boxes, the trucks un-named. But his sons, who now run satellite operation farms from the main one, have finally convinced their father that they need to become a well-known, well-recognised and well-trusted brand to be able to fend off competition which is threatening to emerge from the States. Up until now, Tayo has always said that he’d rather have his life than a huge brand, but now that Peru feels a little safer, he is prepared to surrender the anonymity he has had previously.
The hacienda is one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. It can sleep 60 without difficulty, and in real comfort. Towels are monogrammed with La Calera, shampoo and shower gel is all tangerine scented and La Calera branded. It’s like an exquisite hotel.
Beatriz is beautiful, with big blue eyes and an ethereal and elegant manner. Tayo is more no-nonsense, but a great host. He has always been a sportsman, winning the world rowing championships 4 times in his 50s. Now his love is polo. He keeps 150 horses on the farm, all for polo. His 3 sons all play, and his 10 year old grandson has just been invited to Argentina to compete in a championship where his team came 2nd out of 65. His daughter is a world class ballerina who has just set up a dance company which harnesses the amazing talent of the children who dance for money at Lima’s traffic lights, and the company are set for a tour to the States. All in all, they are quite some family.
“Amor es dar”. Love is to give. Our interview with them is a good one. Beatriz is the intellect, always more introspective and with a hunger for knowledge. Tayo says “I have always been the work horse” and that, he says, was their greatest difficulty, but they have found a way to complement each other perfectly. Beatriz is great friends with Tayo’s younger sister Mani (married to my grandmother’s cousin, Bernardo and who we interviewed and stayed with in Lima – and who we adore!). So Beatriz met Tayo, 5 years older, for the first time when she was 7 years old. She was immediately smitten by his energy and masculinity. A few years later, when she was around 12 and he 17, he was winning rowing accolades and was well known. She says that she was a little fatty (“una gordita” concurs Tayo – a name he later starts to use for me…!) and Tayo was completely unaware of her existence. She, meanwhile, was collecting cuttings from all the newspapers and magazines he featured in, totally idolizing him.
In his early 20s, he was already working hard to make something of the farm. At that point, it had no electricity, no phones and was (and still is) 2 and a half hours drive south of Lima. He would spend weeks down at the farm, then come up to Lima for weekends. The lack of communication meant that he couldn’t arrnage his social life at all – so one weekend, he arrived in Lima expecting to go on a date with his then squeeze. but he couldn’t contact her. He was lamenting this to a friend who said, “why don’t you call Beatriz? She loves Brahms, like you”. “What? That little fatty?” he replied (though in reality, she was thin by this point – and very beautiful). So they went on a date, and so it went from there.
Tayo is a serious fellow. He says that he has always known what he wanted in life, and worked hard to get it. A few months after they started dating, Tayo had to leave Peru to do his Masters in the States. He spent the next year thinking about Beatriz, he wrote her a letter every single day, and he resolved that he wanted to marry her (“she had good bones, a good brain, and I wanted her to be the mother of my children”) so he came back and proposed to her. Ironically, she at this point, was reluctant. She was young, 17, and she was intimidated by the “hurricane” who was persuing her. She said her own mother was the same as Tayo, a strong and powerful force, and she just needed to think for a while about it. She relented, and the two of them have not looked back since. They have 4 children who are their whole worlds. Tayo says that everything he does is for his children, the farm, everything. He feels more pride for the existence of his children than anything else he has done.
His advice was to think about who you want to marry then go out and try and find them. He says that it should be a major decision, and not just someone you meet at a nightclub or party. At one point, he even gets a tear in his eye at the thought of losing Beatriz (having said beforehand “why would people cry?!”) A whirlwind force and his beautiful and brainy wife, fascinating.