CULTURE

Poultry farmers join livestock breeders in switching to organic farming methods

Along with the more familiar organic vegetables and fruit that have been on the market for some time, more recently organic animal products have been making their appearance in Greece. Since summer, organic chickens from Laconia, rather larger than the size one normally sees in the stores, have been appearing on the shelves of a popular supermarket chain around the country under the Biogreco label. They are larger than conventionally produced chickens, slaughtered at 90 days rather than the conventional 40, in accordance with EU regulations which require a minimum of 81 days for organic chickens. The chickens are raised on farmland in Laconia, free to graze in the open, but also fed with a mixture of organically grown grains. Both the poultry and their feed have the seal of approval of DIO, one of Greece’s three organizations authorized by the EU to approve organic produce. Biogreco actually consists of three farms in Laconia – one just north of Sparta and two further south in Hania and Demonia – each owned by one of the three partners, Stavros Argyropoulos, Haralambos Lyras and Meletis Giannakos. Argyropoulos spoke to Kathimerini English Edition at his farm near Sparta recently. A graduate in animal husbandry in Greece and the Netherlands, Argyropoulos first worked for a pig breeder and as a consultant in genetics. Late last year he began working in southern Greece as an adviser to livestock breeders wanting to switch to organic methods. However, many were wary, partly due to the difficulty of adhering to organic principles with animals that graze over a wide area. Argyropoulos, who already had 1.4 hectares of olive groves, decided to go into business for himself with poultry, where conditions are more easily controlled. The venture initially began as an experiment, testing feeding formulas, taking various measurements such as the birds’ growth rates, the percentage of meat and fat-free meat obtained. The first chickens for sale, hatched in June this year, were ready for slaughter in August. Most supermarket chains were not interested as it was an undeveloped market. Some wanted the producers to rent shelf space. Only AB Vassilopoulos said it would try out the product, with an initial 135 birds. August, when most people are away, is not a good time to introduce a new product. However, by the third week, AB was taking 350. At the moment there is a demand for about 900 a week. Biogreco is supplying 700, but Argyropoulos said that within a month it will be able to supply 1,500. Living naturally The chickens are bought as hatchlings; in order to be classified as organically raised, they must be no more than three days old when they go onto an organic farm. The young chicks are kept indoors until they are 22 days old, then moved into one of the fields where they graze in the shade of old olive trees near open shelters containing feed bins and water. Argyropoulos said they have no problem with respiratory problems or the common poultry disease, coccidiosis. The birds are innoculated against this, as well as against bronchitis and Newcastle disease. The fresh air, pure food and exercise enable the birds to live as naturally and stress-free as possible. No antibiotics or «preventive» medicines are given against diseases that flourish in overcrowded conditions. They are slaughtered and processed at EU-approved sites, standardized, packaged and then trucked to Athens, on the shelves within 30 hours of slaughter. Transport costs are a major factor in the price. «Even if we don’t fill a truck we have to pay for it. We need to sell 1,200 a a week to break even. However, we have kept the price at around 6.85 euros, including VAT, per kilo (about 2,330 drachmas), packaged,» he said. Visible difference Consumers frequently express skepticism about food labeled «organic.» Some wonder how strictly producers abide by the rules, while others are skeptical about inspection procedures. Anyone who has seen a battery farm, with chickens crammed into windowless buildings, their feet and wings burned by the manure, doesn’t need more than a brief visit to an organic chicken farm to be convinced that these birds are better for you. The chickens run free in the fields throughout the day – and even at night if they want. Argyropoulos said that on fine nights with a full moon, the chickens often choose stay outside. There is very fresh aroma about the chicken runs, even inside the open-ended shelters, where the floors are lined with a heavy-duty plastic over sand, on which a layer of sawdust is laid. As for the reliability of inspection procedures, DIO’s director, Socrates Zambetoglou, told Kathimerini this week that organic producers are subjected to spot checks of the product as well as regular inspections. «With organic livestock breeding, it is not enough for the animal to eat organically produced food. It has to be shown to be living as natural a life as possible and this is evident to anyone. For example, cattle need 0.2 hectares each to be classified as organically raised; this is why it would be very difficult to produce organic beef in Greece. There just isn’t the space,» he said. DIO’s Aphrodite Tsiligaki, in charge of organic livestock breeding, said that apart from the regular inspections of the premises, the poultry, their feed and the meat produced, unscheduled spot checks are also held. What appears to be needed is a wider information campaign on organic produce, both by producers and authorized inspectors, to brief consumers and assure them of the reliability of the inspections. Call Biogreco at 27320.54.544, DIO at 210.822.4384.