Norhana Pettire had no idea that a hunt for organic durians in Bentong would end with her managing a free-range chicken farm.
Norhana, who is better known as Anna, had heard some organic durians were available in Bentong, Pahang. So, one day in the late 90s she set off on the 70-kilometre drive from Kuala Lumpur. She was surprised at how cheap the fruit was – only RM2.50 (SG$0.85) per kilogram – and saw a business opportunity.
She cut a deal with the farm and began selling the durians in Bangsar, an affluent suburb near Kuala Lumpur. Anna was such a novice that she didn’t even know how to open the fruit but soon learned the techniques from other stall owners.
Her entrepreneurial nature and curiousity about organic farming led her to get involved in poultry farming – despite having no agricultural knowledge. Anna began working with the same farm owner to raise grass-fed, free-range poultry.
DQ Clean Chicken was born and began commercial operations in 2001 on a 20-hectare piece of land in Bentong. Today it supplies free range chicken and eggs to a dozen supermarkets, hypermarkets and specialist organic produce shops in Kuala Lumpur.
“[In the early 2000s] no one had done this before, so we were going to try ,” she explains. “People were after healthy, chemical-free and clean chicken so there is the demand.”
At first, Anna – who had previously run a clothing business – found it a shock to be working on the farm.
“Initially when I first went to the farm, I was hesitant and could not even stand the smell of chicken dung,” she says. “Now, I am so used to it [farming], that even if I ate the chicken dung it would not bother me at all.”
While the career change was a surprise, she was confident she had the skills and mindset to ensure that the farm maintained high standards.
Her determination has helped her win numerous awards from state farming departments for its techniques, and agricultural and organic practices.
DQ Clean Chicken’s organic certification, known as myOrganic, is awarded by the Agriculture and Agro-based Ministry and the Veterinary Department of Malaysia, and covers meat and eggs.
A tough business
According to Anna, anyone who says rearing chickens in Malaysia is easy is kidding themselves. DQ Clean Chicken farm has to ensure consistent clean practices to meet the criteria for organic certification.
The authorities monitor carefully for any traces of salmonella or potential disease and conduct regular inspections of the farm.
In hot and humid Malaysia, keeping the chickens and land free from disease is a major challenge.
“Disease control is important; they require you to have records and documentation. Free-range chicken is tough because we have to be able to handle intestinal worms in this climate,” she explains.
Free range chickens must be allowed to roam so Anna and her team came up with procedures to ensure the chickens have the space to do so, and importantly ensure the right nutrients in their diet to produce clean chicken free of antibiotics or growth hormones.
The chickens are given 50 square feet of land to roam and given feed that consists of protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Importing feed is expensive and there’s also the risk of exposing birds to genetically modified feed.
DQ Clean Chicken uses cow manure to attract black soldier flies, and from there harvests the larvae for protein for chicken feed. Another important source of protein is grass.
“Our grass has 14 percent protein and is grown with care at the nursery where we transplant seedlings into the land for better growth,” she explains. The farm uses Napier and Guinea grass seeds found in nearby riverbanks. DQ Clean Chicken’s farmland is well aerated and rich in earthworms, which are also vital for the chicken’s diet.
Organic bananas and durians provide carbohydrates and vegetable oil makes up the fat content of the feed.
In addition to feed and cleanliness, Anna says their land must be able to support the chickens.
Chicken dung releases nitrates into the land and excessive nitrogen can affect soil quality. To avoid this problem, the chickens are moved every three weeks.
DQ Clean Chicken carries out regular tests on the effluents that are released to nearby rivers to ensure that no chemicals or harmful substances seep into the rivers or water table.
Although these regular tests are required to maintain organic certification, the company had been conducting them long before it sought certification, Anna says.
Chicken waste – the guts, head and feet – is processed, dried and added to the compost, which is turned into a nutrient-rich organic fertiliser for the 800-plus fruit trees on the farm.
Besides durian, the farm grows mangosteen, mangoes, mulberries and banana, all using organic methods. By reusing the materials and composting waste, DQ Clean Chicken maintains a closed-loop system.
Anna explains that a typical practice at a conventional large-scale farm is to generate feed from the chicken waste and give it back to the birds.
“That’s usually the perspective of the corporate farmer, or what we call the accountant farmer,” she says. “About 25 percent of the chicken is discarded as it can’t [be sold] … so they don’t want to see that go to waste.”
DQ Clean Chicken prohibits this practice, making its own feed to ensure high quality, safe organic meat and eggs.
The venture has been so successful that Anna can’t keep up with demand for organic chicken. Halal certification has made her products particularly popular with Muslim customers.
“I’m getting so many calls to supply new supermarkets, but I have trouble meeting demand of my usual clients,” she says.
Anna declines to reveal the farm’s monthly output but says supermarkets in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs of Bangsar and Ampang usually request 80 to 100 birds a day.
In contrast, her chickens lay only 200 eggs a day – a tiny amount compared to larger farms that can produce 20,000 a day. She says the main hindrance to expanding is a lack of workers. The government has a strict policy on hiring migrant workers, but most local workers don’t last more than six months.
DQ Clean Chicken also demands its workers show respect to livestock. For example, no one is allowed to smoke on the farm.
“We’re talking about live things that we are supplying our customers to eat, we can’t have them mucking around like that,” she says.
The strict practices show that the farm is committed to animal welfare and making sure customers in Malaysia have access to healthy food choices.
“It is difficult business, I have to say, having to battle all sorts of rivals,” says Anna, “but we want to do this right. We are an honest business.”