Bird watch­ing

Andy Ken­wor­thy hunts down one of New Zealand’s rarest birds – an or­ganic chicken – in his own neigh­bour­hood south of Auck­land.

Element - - Artisan -

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

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