Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
Although being positively oblivious to anything related to chickens, Ron Meekel (1971) realized there are no free-range eggs to be found on Curacao and he knew he discovered a niche in the market. Meekel is an entrepreneur, a talent inherited from his parents. He is skillful with his hands, whatever he imagines he can build. In this manner one project has followed the next in Meekel’s life.
He is almost thirty years old when he arrives on Curacao by boat, a vessel he transformed back in the Netherlands to a liveaboard ship. The idea is to embark tourists and to moor at various locations on the island. But first things first, the boat must cross the ocean through storms, business partners who dropped out, and debts. Ultimately, in 2007, Meekel disembarked with less than a hundred guilders in change.
When someone inquires if he can build them a ‘palapa’, he has no idea what this is, and he goes to the beach to assess this structure of wood posts and palm leaf roof. After this first commission, a second follows, and Palcon (Palapas and Construction) is born. His business does not stay limited to palapas, soon after more carpentry work follows. At the Caracasbaaiweg Meekel starts a carpentry and furniture workshop.
I immediately saw a market opportunity for free-range eggs
There, in that workplace, he starts woodworking courses for women, until his entrepreneurial bug starts to itch again. Working for private clients is time consuming, it often involves intense rounds of deliberation and projects dropping off at the last moment. Therefore, with the mass-production of furniture for hospitality he changes course once more. Beach loungers, bucket chairs, tables; business takes off. Just then Meekel strikes up a conversation with the owner of a local supermarket on the topic of egg consumption. Does he know how many eggs go through in a day? The seed for free-range egg farm Happy Chicken has actually been planted.
“No, I did not have an affinity with chickens, but I saw the potential. Not that a chicken farm is rocket-science, although I did my research. I found out that it is prohibited to import eggs on Curacao. The island has two large poultry farms run by old Portuguese families. They keep their chickens in cages, and that is how I came to the idea of a free-range farm. More and more people are making conscious food choices, buying sustainable or organic food. I started conservatively, with a hundred chicks. When that took off, and I was able to present figures, I went to the bank with a business plan. They too saw that there was a market and jumped straight in by giving me financial backing.”
My chickens roam free. Here I am happy.
In the end I found a lot of 20,000 square meters myself. The guy who rented it from Domeinbeheer (Public Lands) was the sole inheritor. The deed was transferred to my name. I wasted no time and expanded to 2,000 chicks. Of the two hectares 8,000 square meters is in use by the farm, and I would like to build a house somewhere on the rest of the property. To this end the long ground lease needs to be sorted out, so I can take out a loan. This has been going on for years now. In Curaçao many people are waiting for land rights to be released. This is so unfair, I find it hard to take. It annoys me.”
I found this property myself
In the beginning, I ran into my fair share of government barriers. A free-range farm is considerably more labor intensive than a battery farm, so I had to raise prices. By contrast, battery chickens, stacked three stories high in cages, lay clean eggs. Those businesses push a button twice daily, once to take the feed to the cages, the second time to collect the eggs. My chickens roam free, I incur more costs feeding, picking, and cleaning. The department for agriculture threatened to recall my eggs from the shelves, even after the minister had granted my license. That cost me a lot of money to resolve the issue. That first period was very difficult.”
A chicken lays about 280 eggs per year.
Yes, this is quite different from a boat with tourists, yet fun. Chicken farming does not run in the family, so I had to reinvent the wheel. Right at the beginning I failed to inoculate against smallpox. Looking at the head of a chicken you notice immediately whether it is ill or not. Or there were some that looked off and were a bit listless. Two vets from the Veterinarian Service dissected a chicken on the spot, which made quite an impression on me. We added supplements and vitamins and then they improved. I understand better and better how it works, and what the chickens need. I am happy here. I am content. Here I live in freedom and have plenty of space.”
The chicks are from the Netherlands. They are crated the same day that they are born and, after receiving a clean bill of health, flown by plane to Curaçao. After arrival at Happy Chicken the one-day chicks, usually counting 2,000, are given a clean nest in one of the smaller cages. They have virtually no feathers yet and need to be kept warm and snug after sundown. Meanwhile, farmer Meekel has been hunting for rats for over a month. He shoots and poisons them, as a rat will easily devour two to three chicks each night. You cannot have hundreds of those. Meekel keeps a constant eye on the offspring. One could drop in the water bowl and cool off too much.
Chicks need to eat and drink well and keep dry. Sometimes the little chicks do not manage to drink from the spout of the water dispenser, which is why there are always little containers with water in the chicken run. When the chicks have gained weight and grown sufficiently, they are transferred to a larger space. They are only ready to lay eggs after five months, however. The chicken farmer runs a high risk during these first few months. The breeding and nurturing of the chicks represents a considerable investment. For a batch of 5,000 new-born chickens the expenditure in feed alone equals 80,000 guilders in five months.
2,000 new chicks every five months.
There, at a remote location somewhere in the eastern part of Curaçao, about 6,000 chickens are ranging in chicken runs made by Meekel. The chicken wire fencing has openings here and there to allow natural light. Chickens are sand bathing in places, they take to the sand as a fish to water. Others are nibbling a drink of water from the spout of the dispenser, while others still are scraping feed from the edges of a plastic container. The feed is automatically replenished. That’s how the hens cluck and scratch around. How many square meters is allocated to each chicken Meekel does not know precisely, but it is definitely more than the legal norm of nine chickens per square meter. That norm is simply inadequate. Roosters are not welcome here. A fertilized egg needs to be hatched and then a hen will stop laying for a while.
The chickens in the runs of Happy Chicken are of the Brown Nick breed. These are the cream of the crop of the layer chickens. In contrast to broilers, which are sometimes ready for slaughter in five weeks, layer chickens can last up to a year and a half. At that point the balance between cost of feed plus labor and proceeds of eggs starts to shift. The ‘old girls’ are collected or donated. The run is emptied and is cleaned thoroughly. Over the months a thick layer of chicken poop has formed and is scraped off the bottom. After deep cleaning the chicken run is ready for the fresh crop of layer chickens of five months old, raised at the farm. They first will have to be vaccinated. Four assistants from the local community are enlisted to give each chicken a shot, to put them in metal cages, and drive up to the clean run. And so, through the years the cycle repeats itself. Every five months a new shipment of one-day-old chicks arrives, and the old guard gives way to a new crop of young and productive chickens.
Dry feed is imported from the Netherlands. Each month Happy Chicken orders a shipping container with approximately 23,000 kilos of chicken feed. The feed has all the nutrients the chickens need. Farmer Meekel did look at alternatives and tried to buy the feed closer to home in either Colombia or Surinam. But these suppliers were more expensive, so he follows established habits of chicken farmers before him. Not only is the chicken feed from the Netherlands cheaper, but also of better quality. The Netherlands is, according to Meekel, ‘world champion in animal husbandry’, with the best cows, pigs and chickens. This is owing to the excellent cooperation between the agricultural sector and Wageningen University, a Dutch university specialized in agriculture.
The Netherlands is world champion in animal husbandry
He does feed his crop fruits and vegetables, but less so when compared to the period when pigs were still roaming the terrain. The chickens suffered from a calcium deficit as a result. The eggs could break in the belly, incurring the risk of internal bleeding. Or the shell would be too soft, and many eggs would break. The chicken population is fed additional multivitamins monthly through the drinking water. The water is drawn from wells on the land and kept in cisterns. Through a piped system about 1,500 liters of water is sent to the chicken runs each day. With good feed, plenty of water and extra vitamins the chickens stay healthy. A virus such as the bird flu, which forced farms in the Netherlands to clear complete populations of birds, is absent on Curaçao. However, the chickens are inoculated three times against other diseases, such as the smallpox. Nevertheless, Meekel is forever careful and does not allow just anyone on the property.
An egg from Happy Chicken is a fresh egg. It must be put on the supermarket shelves in less than a week after collection. That is the strict requirement which farmer Meekel has imposed on himself. On average a farmworker collects 2,000 eggs daily. They are laid by the hens in special laying boxes in the runs. That is quite a difference from the battery hen, where the egg is excreted on a metal channel and rolls off. An egg from the laying box is dirty with sand and poop. Therefore, the eggs of Happy Chicken are all cleaned and dried in a special facility before being boxed.
Storing eggs to fill peak demand is out of the question. An older egg is easily recognized in the pan. The egg white will flow out. With a fresh egg the yolk and white are cozily sputtering together in a lump. Because of its ‘freshness guarantee’ Happy Chicken was asked to supply tourist resorts such as Chogogo, Morena and restaurant Kome.