Andy Kenworthy hunts down one of New Zealand’s rarest birds – an organic chicken – in his own neighbourhood south of Auckland.
Harold Melis is affectionately known locally as ‘the Chicken Man’. He has made this name for himself with a single-minded vision – to put a better chook on the nations’ tables. The average New Zealander eats about 35 kilograms of chicken a year. With a big bird weighing in at about 1.5 kilograms, that’s about 23 chickens per person per year, or more than 90 million chickens a year.
With increasing concerns about our own health and animal welfare, many of us are keen to ensure that whatever meat we do eat has a healthy, happy life and a humane end. Selecting certified organic meats is a big step in the right direction. But getting hold of an organic chicken in New Zealand can feel like trying to get hold of some kind of exotic or illicit substance.
Kipdale Farms is nestled in the secluded Ness Valley beyond Clevedon. Harold is from a farming family in Holland. When he was growing up everyone he knew cared for their own chickens, as well as pigs and cows, as a part of their everyday life. Initially, he set up the business as free range, but quickly realised it wasn’t going to work.
“In free range there are no rules, you can call pretty much call any chickens free range as long as there is a hole in the shed. If you have 25,000 chickens in the shed 85 per cent of them aren’t even aware that there is a hole, so they don’t go out. Working like that you end up competing with the really big players, and you are never going to win.
“People tend to say free range organic in one breath. Most people think free range is healthy and they don’t really know the difference. We like organic because there are no short cuts, everything is controlled, the food, the stocking levels, and the age at which the chickens are killed.”
The shift to organic meant he could establish himself in a premium niche market and be able to look after the chickens in the way he prefers. But the signs were not initially that encouraging – the people he bought a lot of the equipment from ran one of the few organic chicken companies, and were giving up after about a decade of hard slog. Organic chickens are generally killed at about 51 days and so live a couple of weeks longer than their conventional counterparts. This longer lifespan means they tend to be larger than non-organic chickens.
The first few months were difficult. The biggest challenge was explaining the extra cost of their product; a whole Kipdale Farms chicken comes in at about $25 when you can grab a free-range chicken at $15, or a bargain broiler for about $10. But those that know about food know the difference. Kipdale Farms has been recommended by top chefs like executive chef Edmond Weicherding of the Chameleon restaurant at the five star InterContinental Wellington and Mark Wylie, director of kitchens at SkyCity, Auckland.
Above: Harold Melis tends his brood. Right: Harold & Marieke Melis. Photos: Ted Baghurst