On a More Positive Note from Iraq..

Wellesley – In
Wellesley, where Jessica McCoy grew up, finding locally grown chicken
for dinner wouldn’t be a major challenge. But in Iraq, where McCoy now
lives, fresh, local chicken has gotten harder to come by.

Chicken is important to the Iraqi diet, McCoy said in an e-mail
interview, because it presents the ideal “meat packet” to provide
protein for a single family at the village level.

But after the 2003 collapse of the Iraqi government, the
industry was left in disarray. The bird flu scare and an influx of
cheap, frozen chicken from Brazil and the U.S. helped make a bad
situation worse. Many Iraqi poultry growers sold their farms after 2003
and, as a result, those managing the farms now are doing it for the
first time.

A veterinarian and Army major working with an embedded
reconstruction team, McCoy is helping poultry farmers regroup. A
Wellesley High School graduate who received a master’s degree in
humanitarian assistance and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from
Tufts University, McCoy is working with poultry and crop experts from
the U.S. State Department on an effort known as Operation Chicken Run.
The goal is to band poultry growers together and to get them set up
with feed mills and processing plants.  

The strategy of McCoy and her team has been to set up an
association of farmers in Mahmoudiya Qada, a sub-governate of Baghdad
Province where there are nearly 300 registered poultry farmers.

The team reaches out to farmers through their respective sheikhs to
find out if they would be a good fit for the association. “I find this
to be the most reliable method, since sheikhs have a blood relationship
with their people, they are often more influenced by their people’s
needs than an outsider would be,” McCoy said.

The Mahmoudiya Poultry Association comprises about 100
growers so far, as well as three mill owners, three hatchery owners and
a slaughter plant owner.

The farmers come from all across the region, representing 14 tribes
and crossing religious barriers. For this reason, “it’s a good tool for
reconciliation” between the warring factions, said McCoy. “Some of the
meetings get pretty boisterous, but they work it out and the
association has stuck together, in the absence of any direct benefit
yet, for over four months while we put the pieces of the industry
together and established the business plan.”

In order to compete with cheap frozen imports, Iraqi farmers need to produce fresh halalslaughtered
chicken that Iraqis are willing to pay extra for. Halal-slaughtered
animals are killed by a cut to the neck with a sharp knife. A prayer
must be said before the animal is slaughtered, and it must be free of
broken bones and blemishes. All slaughter in Iraq is traditionally

Through the association, said McCoy, Iraqi farmers are learning how
to raise a quality chicken without any noticeable blemishes. “We are
aiming for the ‘high-end’ poultry market,” said McCoy. “There is a
strong market for fresh (not frozen) poultry slaughtered according to
the halalmethod that has been raised without hormones or other
‘chemical additives.’”

Because the association has only one slaughter plant, there is a limit to how many farmers it can provide with employment.

“They have been busting down my door trying to get into the
association,” McCoy said, noting that not every farmer who wants one
has been granted a spot.