Raising organic fowl isn’t a task for the chickenhearted

Going beyond free-range and antibiotic-free, Arik Melamed is a poultry pioneer

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Arik Melamed, the proprietor of Melamed Farms, one of the few organic chicken farms in Israel (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Arik Melamed, the proprietor of Melamed Farms, one of the few organic chicken farms in Israel (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Israelis love chicken. Whether it’s served as schnitzel (with fries), laid on the grill, poached in chicken soup or carved into boneless pullet steaks, this domesticated fowl is eaten by 87 percent of the Israeli public nearly every day — that’s 58 kilos of chicken per capita each year.

In fact, Israel is the world’s number-one consumer of chicken, ahead of Australia, the US, and Argentina, the countries that lead in global meat consumption, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Yet the chicken most often consumed in Israel is inexpensive, fed with cheap meal made from ground bone and grown with antibiotics.

“Israelis eat a lot of chicken and the chicken they eat is very cheap,” said Arik Melamed, the proprietor of Melamed Farms, one of Israel’s few organic commercial chicken farms, on Moshav Kfar Hanagid in central Israel south of Tel Aviv. “Nobody really worries about the quality of the food, and anything goes.”

The Melamed Farm Ross organic chickens are free-range but often prefer to stay inside, particularly if it’s cool outside (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Chicken coops full of free-range, antibiotic-free Ross breed chickens have been Melamed’s profession for the last eight years, ever since he left high-tech. Before that he was a career lieutenant colonel in the paratroopers unit.

“My email signature always said ‘farmer,'” said Melamed, who spent 10 years working in marketing for consumer electronics company Orbotech in Singapore before returning to Israel.

Melamed was raised on Moshav Kfar Hanagid near Yavne, where his parents, immigrants from Bulgaria, owned a large farm and raised poultry and other crops. He dreamed of returning to farming, but he pragmatically searched for a crop in which he would be filling a niche in the market. It took a while to figure out that fowl was his forte.

“The benefit of doing this at an older age” — Melamed is now 54 — “is that you can learn and look at the market and figure out what to do,” he said. “I wanted a branch of agriculture that wasn’t too crowded and a product that I could give my kids and with an added value.”

Melamed doesn’t live on the moshav but rather up north in Tzippori, driving three hours round-trip most days to work at the farm. Nor does he eat only organic; organic farming was a business choice, and organic chickens, he figured out, were an open market with few competitors.

In fact, for now, Melamed is an organic poultry pioneer, with little competition.

Organic chickens are a tough market to enter, said an Agriculture Ministry spokesperson, probably because it’s heavily regulated, unlike the antibiotic-free and free-range chicken farms that undergo less supervision, and “it’s difficult to know what’s really going on there.”

Ross chickens are the breed raised by Melamed, and by many chicken breeders around the world (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The market for antibiotic-free chickens is one that’s growing quickly, while raising organic chickens is “much harder, because of the regulations and conditions and costs,” she said. “And to our dismay, consumers are satisfied with just antibiotic-free.”

There are several options for consumers looking to eat a healthier chicken, but one that isn’t as supervised or costly as organic chicken. One of the largest providers of antibiotic-free, naturally fed chickens, including ready-made frozen schnitzel, is Meshek Artzi, which is sold in many of the country’s major supermarket chains.

It’s not like in Europe, said Melamed, where the government supervision on all chicken is much stricter, and culinary traditions also prevail.

“Nobody here really worries about the quality of their food,” he said. “You would never feed chickens with bone flour in Europe, and here you find that anything goes.”

At the same time, the entire organic market in Israel is growing and changing all the time, as it is in the rest of the world.

“There’s a much larger range of products now,” said the ministry spokesperson. “It used to be just fruits and vegetables but now it’s the whole kitchen.”

That’s the concept at Melamed, which includes a cafe and market at the entrance to the farm. Frozen chicken parts are sold at the store, as are organic vegetables grown at nearby farms, organic eggs and other organic packaged products from other manufacturers.

There’s no question as to what’s for lunch at Meshek Melamed, where roast chicken is always on the menu (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In fact, the only aroma at this chicken farm is that of roasted chicken wafting through the air. Roasted chicken is served every day, along with roasted potatoes, wedges of roasted pumpkin and a side of lemony dressed green salad and tahini.

“What else would we serve?” said Melamed.

Just past the market, the office and a field where Melamed is growing organic asparagus is one of his three chicken coops, where 8,000 small white Ross chickens wander freely, dining on vegetable-based organic feed imported from Europe served in a maze of chicken feeders installed close to the ground.

The chickens can exit any one of the three oversized doors and head out over the close-cropped ground to perch under a leafy tree, but on a recent visit in late November they preferred to stay inside where the air was a little warmer.

“What’s fun for a chicken?” asked Melamed. “This is nothing compared to a regular chicken coop; it’s all natural light here, they have more room, you can’t compare it to an industrial coop.”

An organic chicken farm has to be free range, with six chickens per square meter in the chicken coop and three chickens per square meter in the grazing area, compared with 16 chickens per square meter in a standard chicken coop. They’re also reared without antibiotics, growth accelerators or hormones; if the chickens were to require antibiotics because of illness, that flock automatically becomes non-organic.

Melamed’s chickens have good grazing opportunities in the yard outside the chicken coop (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The end product of these carefully raised chickens is a low percentage of fat relative to meat, a stronger, grassier flavor and better nutritional value.

The chickens end up being somewhat small, usually about one kilo in size. They spend about 40 days, sometimes longer, in the chicken coop, where a longer time spent creates larger chickens.

Compared to a regular chicken farm, even one that is antibiotic-free and free range, the chickens are healthier, eat better food and have more space, and “that offers good results,” he said.

The challenge, said Melamed, is being cost-effective, which is why he has little competition for now.

“It’s a high cost of entry,” he said.

In order to be certified organic, a chicken farm must be set up on chemical-free land, with a separate location for slaughtering the fowl, all under the rigorous supervision of Agrior, Israel’s organic certification and inspection agency, accredited by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements.

What Melamed didn’t anticipate was how expensive it would be to command and control these flocks. It took some eight years to fund the business — mostly from the bank — which now includes three flocks of 8,000 chickens each, a staff of nine, including drivers, marketing and accounting, and a separate day reserved by the farm at an Ashdod slaughterhouse, so that the organic chickens won’t be fouled by the non-organic chicken also slaughtered in that location.

Melamed raises six flocks of chickens each year, in each coop, for a total of 144,000 chickens each year.

It all makes for a pricey chicken.

A whole frozen Melamed chicken, ready for sale (Courtesy Melamed Farms)

A whole Melamed chicken — certified kosher with mehadrin supervision of the Ashdod rabbinat — costs NIS 65 ($18), while a one-kilo tray of thighs is NIS 55 ($15), a 0.7 kilo tray of chicken breast costs NIS 60 ($17) and a tray of chicken wings cost NIS 25 ($7).

Those kinds of prices are a serious consideration for Israeli consumers, said Melamed.

“There’s no incentive to buy organic, but people will eventually realize that what’s in their food is what’s sending them to the hospital,” he said.

It is, at least, fairly easy to find these organic birds. They’re available in most major supermarkets and the farm delivers anywhere in the country for a minimum order of NIS 400 ($141).

“We want to make it as easy as possible,” he said. “ I want to know customers can get their chicken, because if they’re happy, they stay. That’s what ties customers to us.”

That, and the chicken.

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