Entering an airline hangar-sized bird coop, thousands of colourful pheasants suddenly erupt into a dancing flurry.
Like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary movie thriller The Birds, a group of visitors is suddenly immersed in a sea of feathers and dust.
After a few moments, the dance of fury subsides and Mohammed Shaaban, owner of Phoenix Farm in Ferzil, Bekaa, begins to explain the characteristics of the fowl. Pointing to a number of brightly coloured birds sporting elaborate plumes from their tails and black rings around their necks, he said:
“Those are the males. The females are not as beautiful.”
In a separate section of the structure is a coop of ornamental chickens with their distinctive feathered plumes fanning out above their heads.
“They remind me of the soldiers that stand in front of Buckingham palace. Every time I look at them, I think of those soldiers. You can eat these birds, but I don’t have the heart to kill them. They are too beautiful.” Instead, Shaaban explains, he sells them as pets.
Entering another section of the building, a horde of agitated ducks begin to flap their wings and wag their feathery tails as they waddle about trying to distance themselves from the unfamiliar visitors. “They have lots of space to move around,” says Fred Akafour, an old friend of Shaaban’s who was visiting from London. “You can tell they are happy.”
Shaaban is the owner of what, he believes, is the only farm for game bird and Peking duck in the Middle East.
Supplying a number of the country’s high-class restaurants and supermarkets, his enterprise, in one year, has blossomed into a conspicuous example of a local agro-business able to successfully compete with foreign imports.
Shaaban explained the origins of his undertaking.
While running a restaurant in Spain during the 1980s he met a successful German businessman and found out that he was a game-bird dealer.
Inspired by a life-long love of animals, Shaaban decided to spend three years training with the German in the breeding, handling and care for a range of pheasants, ornamental chickens, turkeys, quails and partridges.
In 1993, after 25 years living in Saudi Arabia, the United States, England and Spain, Shaaban decided to return to Lebanon.
“After prime minister Rafik Hariri came to office, I decided to come back to Lebanon and open a game-bird farm,” Shaaban said.
It took Shaaban three years of false starts and failed endeavours in the Beirut area before, last year, he bought a farm in the Bekaa and went into full-time operation.
Soon after opening his business, Shaaban found that there was considerable demand for duck by restaurants, catering companies and supermarkets.
Shaaban had no experience in raising ducks, so he contacted the Cherry Valley Company in the United Kingdom, whose 16 years of research on breeding Peking ducks has resulted in a 25 per cent fat reduction through genetic engineering.
Bringing the ducks from the UK, he explained, was not easy.
“When I arrived at the Beirut airport with the first shipment of ducklings the customs officials would not let me bring them into the country,” he said.
He explained that officials were following a prohibition on the importation of chicks, which they interpreted to include ducklings as well.
It cost him $1,500 to bring them into the country.
Although he was later able to obtain a letter from the agriculture minister ordering that the money be returned to him, he only recovered $50.
Despite these problems, Shaaban today is breaking into new frontiers with his exotic poultry.
His gourmet ducks and game birds are served in such famous Beirut restaurants as Century Park, La Cigale, Vendome, and the Bristol hotel.
The fowl can also be found in a number of high class supermarkets, including Goodies, Abela and Metro.
Pheasants, he noted, are a seasonal bird that can only be bred in the spring.
He breeds approximately 8,000 pheasants each year, of which some are kept as parent stock for next year’s breeding.
The remainder he sells at a price of $9 per bird: half to restaurants and half to hunting preserves.
The ornamental chickens (farah deeba in Arabic), he noted, are not raised for food but as pets.
“They are beautiful and they have a nice character,” he explained. “People here like to keep them on their patios.”
His most lucrative business, however, is with the Peking ducks.
Shaaban, who sells anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 ducks a week to local buyers, insisted that his animals are of better quality and cheaper than those imported from abroad.
He noted that the specifications and standards for care and feeding applied here are the same applied by the parent company in England.
Because of lower labour and property costs, he is able to charge $3.25 a kilogram for his ducks in contrast to a $4.50 price tag on imported, frozen non-Peking ducks from America. Fresh ducks from France, he added, cost $7 per kilogram.
Though acknowledging that duck is not a common part of the national diet, Shaaban said that he wanted to convince people to change their habits through appeals to health consciousness.
“These ducks don’t need vaccinations, chickens do. The vaccine that they give chicken, over the long term, has a negative effect on the health of people who eat it.
“We don’t pump these ducks with artificial additives,” he added.
Like his colleagues in the agro-produce industry, Shaaban complained that despite lower price and higher quality, consumers are often finicky about buying Lebanese produce.
“People still want American and European duck simply because it comes from those countries,” he said.
Nonetheless, Shaaban expressed hope that his business will continue to grow.
He cited last month’s Agrotech 97 exhibition at the Forum de Beyrouth as a major boost to his business.
“The exhibition had a dramatic affect. Swarms of people came to try the samples we were serving,” he said.
Shaaban expressed hope that next year he could begin to export his produce to other countries in the region, citing the Gulf, Syria and Egypt as potential markets.
He added that he plans to buy another farm and expand from ducks and game birds to ostriches and venison.