Why an engineer gave up lucrative jobs abroad to set up an organic farm.

Having returned to the country in 2014 after working for various multinational organisations abroad, Imrul wanted to strike a path for himself.

Mr. Imrul Hasan. An inspiration to youths. 

Struck by Covid-19, Imrul Hasan, a graduate of the Department of Computer Science Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering, would spend his time wondering what he would do if he recovered.

Having returned to the country in 2014 after working for various multinational organisations abroad, Imrul wanted to strike a path for himself. He had dabbled in agriculture, rearing goats and setting up a dairy farm. But, both were experimental. 

After recovering from the coronavirus, Imrul turned his attention towards chicken. A 2020 study published by Bangladesh government showed that 525 million broiler chickens were eaten in the country every year. Imrul was impressed by the numbers, but the awe soon wore off when he dug a little deeper. While chicken has become one of the main sources of animal meat in the country, the use of antibiotics used in commercial poultry farms to help the livestock grow faster and prevent disease among them continued unabated.

Under the country's laws, the use of antibiotics in animal and poultry feed was prohibited under Section 14 of the Fish Feed and Animal Feed Act, 2010.

The law, however, did little to deter anyone and the practice continues. The risks, in numbers, were striking. Consuming the egg, milk or fat of animals injected with antibiotics transfers the bacteria born in the animal's body to humans. This can lead to increased risk of kidney and liver complications, ulcers, heart disease and even cancer. Various estimates put the number of deaths due to developing antibiotic resistance to seven lakh a year.

This flood of alarming information moved Imrul and he decided to do something about it. He soon established a poultry farm in his Baraitaili village in Gazipur's Kaliakair. Called "Organic Chicken'', the farm promised to deliver what it so simply said.

Imrul operates the farm strictly adhering to the guidelines set by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The chickens in his farm are not fed any commercial feed, instead being served a chicken meal made at the farm, alongside healthy food like spinach, natural moringa and maize. Instead of antibiotics, the herb oregano, which has antibiotic properties, is used.

Herbal alternatives are also turned to incase of the birds requiring any treatment. The main priority of the farm is to keep the chicken from getting sick. Apple cider vinegar is another option to boost the birds' immunity in the farm.

"If an animal's eating habits, their environment and the temperature they are kept in can be maintained, then their tendency to get sick decreases. Despite our best efforts, if the chickens do get sick, then we try to cure them without the use of antibiotics," Imrul said.

Running the farm, set up at a cost of Tk1 crore, however, has not come without a unique set of challenges.

The initial investment, itself, was a challenge. While the cost for setting up regular commercial poultry farms is less, due to the unique infrastructural needs and maintenance work of an organic farm, the costs are higher.

The profits, on the other hand, rely on the number of chickens in each batch and their weight. The lower the weight of chicken in a batch, the lower is the profit.

"Growth promoters and hormones are used in commercial farms. This is why chickens grow so fast. On the other hand, we do not use these in poultry feed so it takes longer for the chickens to grow," he said.

The farm also had to face numerous adverse situations since being set up in December last year, with several batches of chickens showing high mortality rates. "By correcting and fine-tuning our methods, we have reduced the death rate to 2-3%. We are going through a trial-error period," Imrul said. "Whenever I see something wrong, I try to figure out how to avoid it the next time. For now, I can say I am succeeding," he added.

At present, there are 3,000 coloured birds and 1,500 broiler chickens (white) in the farm. Imrul has plans to increase the number of broiler chickens.

The price of his chicken is higher than the market price as it is farmed in accordance with the international guidelines for organic food. He charges Tk250 for the broiler chickens and Tk350 for the coloured birds.

Most of the buying and selling at the farm is done online. So far, delivery is restricted to Dhaka city only and it is free of charge. A minimum of five broiler hens or a minimum of six coloured hens have to be ordered.

The farm comes equipped with lighting and ventilation facilities, alongside a temperature-control system. Everything is controlled by a computer.

While the price is comparatively higher, this has not affected demand, according to Imrul. He says that most broiler chickens are sold 40 days after birth, while it is 55 days for the coloured hens. Another reason for Imrul's optimism is that even if the price is steep, soaring demand means that orders have to be pre-booked.

"Sales bookings have been taken till February this month. We can't accommodate all the orders at once," said Imrul.

Despite growing demand for organic chickens, the supply is yet to catch up.

Calling for government patronage, Imrul said, "Very few people are working on this. More needs to be done to meet the demand for organic food in the country. Due to the cost and use of technology, accurate information and training is needed."

Courtesy: TBS News
Imrul’s Antibiotic-free Amart Poultry Farm (Shykh Seraj)