Pinned to the wall in Mirza Ahmed’s office is a document from Orange County stating that his 1.36-acre property outside Winter Park is zoned industrial and appropriate for agriculture.
He fought for that piece of paper five years ago when he decided to build his free-range chicken farm east of Forsyth Road and Gardner Street, backing up to apartments and residential housing.
Ahmed runs his farm and slaughterhouse in the heart of Central Florida’s metropolitan area. He raises farm-to-table, natural chickens with all the sights, sounds and smells that go along with it.
He came to the United States 30 years ago from Pakistan to work as a mechanical engineer, but found a demand for fresh chicken slaughtered by halal standards, a food preparation code for Muslims. He started Apoultry after moving from the Florida Panhandle where he ran another chicken farm, looking for a bigger market.
Business has picked up in the past two years, he says.
“Mostly, it’s just been Middle Eastern people and some Hispanic people who grew up raising and eating fresh chicken, but lately people have been coming because it’s free range and doesn’t have the hormone and antibiotics,” he said. “This is a place where you can come and buy fresh, live animals and we process it while you wait.”
Apoultry is at the intersection of two burgeoning trends, demand for halal food and the push for organic and local products. Halal sales in the United States grew 15 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to estimates from market research company Nielsen and Bloomberg.
Estimates from the Association of Religion Data Archives estimate there were nearly 28,000 Muslims in Central Florida in 2010, a tenfold increase from a decade before. Meanwhile, organic product sales hit $47 billion in 2016, up 8 percent from the year before.
Diane Dobry of WInter Park saw a billboard for Apoultry in November and has been looking for a cheaper alternative than gourmet food stores and butchers.
“I had lived in upstate New York where the farmers would bring me fresh eggs to my door as well as fresh killed chickens and turkey,” said Dobry, who has bought eggs and chickens from Apoultry.
A chicken usually runs $12 to $14, about twice as much as a traditional supermarket, but less than many specialty shops. The chickens are more expensive, Ahmed says, because they are about twice as old as mass-produced chickens when they are slaughtered. On factory farms, chickens are slaughtered at about 14 weeks of age.
Older, free-range chickens do have a different taste, he said. Dobry said the chickens have less fat and need to be cooked a bit longer. It also sells specialty breeds such as black-skinned chickens, which Ahmed said are popular in Asia.
The chickens aren’t raised at Apoultry. Orlando is too hot to raise them, Ahmed said. Instead, they are brought weekly, about 200 at a time, from a co-op near Jacksonville.
Larger animals roam the fenced yard while a few hundred chickens huddle together in a 400-square-foot shaded pen. Most only live there for a week or two before being sold.
Apoultry also sells ducks, turkey, goats, rabbits and other small animals and quail eggs.
Orange County officials say no neighbors have complained about the facility.
Next to the chicken slaughter room, he’s building a facility for beef, which needs high ceilings to hang the cattle carcasses. It should be finished this summer. Halal standards call for animals to be drained of blood after being killed and before being slaughtered.
Fresh, local food may be the trend, but it isn’t always pretty.
Dead chickens are put through a cylindrical plucking machine that pulls of feathers in a few seconds. Butchers clean the animals on site. In the warm Central Florida climate, the facility and farm are warm and the scents of live and recently butchered animals mix together.
“It’s as fresh as you can get,” Ahmed said.