Chicken with a conscience

Free-range “non-toxic” chicken commands a premium from those escaping the horrors on industrialized poultry production

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Mar 06, 2013 - Page 12

The horrors of industrialized poultry production have in recent years become common knowledge to anyone who cares about the food they eat and the way it is produced. These horrors are not just the appalling condition in which chickens are reared for slaughter, but also the effects of antibiotics and growth hormones on humans who consume the chickens and also on the environment. That said, when you can buy a whole chicken at a supermarket for just NT$99, the dream of “a chicken in every pot” has certainly come true. The question remains, is it worth the price?

People like Chang Chin-yi (張進義), who runs the Hsiangting Poultry Farm (鄉庭畜牧場) in Hualien County, the price of cheap chicken is way too high. Chang said that over the 11 years he has been in the poultry business, his commitment to free range, antibiotic and hormone-free chicken rearing has only strengthened. “You only have to look at kids today to know what this can do,” he said. “Once the growth hormones and antibiotics that are used to sustain industrial chicken rearing get into your body, you won’t ever get them out.”

TOUGH SLOG

For Chang, as for many farmers who bought into the “non-toxic agriculture” (無毒農業) movement promoted by the Hualien County Government, it has been a hard road to success, but when asked last week why he perseveres, Chang smiles broadly. “Only a fool would do something like this.” Chang emphasizes this defining quality more than once in the afternoon I spent with him on his property, speaking of the tremendous difficulties he has endured in building up his farm, overcoming his own initial ignorance of chicken farming and of marketing, and also of coming to terms with the often erratic support of the government. “Many farmers who were persuaded to try out non-toxic agriculture (a decade ago) have now gone back to conventional agriculture,” he said.

Chang originally worked with Taiwan Cement (台灣水泥) and still proudly wears a jacket bearing the company’s logo. When he was about to retire, he asked his wife what they should do in their twilight years. “She likes chickens, so we decided to rear chickens,” he said. Chang now farms around 10,000 chickens on nearly seven hectares of land on an uninhabited hillside in Shoufeng Township (壽豐鄉).

The first thing that you notice at Hsiangting Poultry Farm is the huge fenced off areas where the chickens roam. These are centered on hanger-like spaces where the chickens can shelter. The area might even be a petting zoo, except for the very large number of birds. “They are very well behaved and not afraid of people at all,” Chang said, proudly lifting one of the birds on his arm. Other birds ambled about him, curious about the fuss. He points out the amenities, the roosting perches, the grounds, the laying beds for the hens, rather like a hotel manager introducing guests to the services available.

POULTRY PARADISE

The birds live in this comfortable environment for up to five months before slaughter, growing as nature intended. Chang shakes his head in consternation at an industry that has reduced the time for a bird to reach slaughter weight to as little as 27 days. (The average for the US, according to the Web site chickenindustry.com, is 45 days.) Although Chang refuses to use hormones to accelerate growth, and says that the land on which the farm is located is cleared wilderness, he utterly rejects the now much overused label of “organic.”

“In Taiwan’s meat and poultry industry, nothing is really, truly organic,” Chang said. He was infuriated when healthfood stores marketed his eggs as “organic,” and he laughs at the fact that he has offended many with his insistence that the consumer not be fobbed off with meaningless terms. “We cannot cheat the consumer,” Chang said. Chang has since pulled out of most marketing networks and sells direct to the customer through his Web site so he can retain control over the quality and marketing of his product.

HUMANE DEATH

Chang laughs at his early ignorance of his poultry operations, joking about spending a whole day processing 20 chickens for delivery during his first year and of being cheated by providers of poultry feed and middlemen. Now he works with a professional abattoir using humane slaughter and blast freezing equipment to ensure freshness. With a 1.2kg bird costing around NT$600, a significant premium on even high quality supermarket birds, Chang said he ships around 1,000 chickens a month and struggles to keep up with demand. Most of his customers are located in northern Taiwan, where awareness of the health and environmental issues is greater, and where a higher disposable income makes Chang’s chickens more affordable.

“People just want to know what they are getting,” Chang said, who encourages customers to come visit his farm to see things for themselves. He regularly holds lecture tours on the premises, explaining that he is not doing anything very extraordinary. He is simply going back to basics.

“I want to rear a good healthy chicken,” Chang said. “Then when I sell it to my customers, I can sleep well at night. This is all about conscience. ‘Organic’ agriculture is agriculture with a conscience. You can’t talk about agriculture any other way. What you want is a good healthy bird with no drugs or chemicals. The rest is secondary.”

More information about Hsiangting Poultry Farm can be found at the farm’s Web site: 8651315.com.