Quest for healthier poultry

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 07, 2011 09:12 pm

Melani Neisz, pictured here with her roommate and friend Scott Johnson, hopes to establish a poultry ranch outside of North Powder that would double as a research and education facility. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Melani Neisz, pictured here with her roommate and friend Scott Johnson, hopes to establish a poultry ranch outside of North Powder that would double as a research and education facility. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Union woman hopes to establish chicken-raising operation that avoids use of chemicals, antibiotics

Melani Neisz is thinking big these days. Her mind is on healthy poultry, better eggs and chicken meat for the multitudes.

For the past several years Neisz, of Union, has been been hatching plans for Rooster Ridge Ranch, a poultry operation near North Powder.

No ordinary chicken ranch, this. As Neisz envisions it, Rooster Ridge will raise birds free of disease, and free of chemicals and antibiotics. Not only that, the ranch will serve as a leader in poultry research and education.

Neisz said there’s a crying need for such a place, and she has a burning desire to fill it.

“I’ve had people tell me they stopped buying chicken 20 years ago because they don’t like what goes into it,” she said.

Neisz (pronounced Nice) has worked for several government agencies, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, as a fisheries research assistant. She also has an associates degree in agriculture from Blue Mountain Community College.

She moved to Union County in 1998 to continue her education, but while attending Eastern Oregon University fell ill with Lyme’s Disease.

During an extended illness and recovery period, she made decorative items out of beads and feathers. A tutor working with her at Eastern suggested she get feathers for the projects by raising her own birds.

“Those few words brought me in this direction,” Neisz said.

She obtained a rooster from the Blue Mountain Humane Association. Then, she said, she started falling in love with birds. In a short time, she ended up with a flock of about 20 chickens.

She found the experience fascinating.

“I watch their personalities and behavior. That way I can tell if something’s wrong. I’m an animal lover at heart,” she said.

She found herself with an overabundance of eggs, so started selling them. She said that at any one time, she sold eggs to six clients and had a hard time keeping up with demand.

About four years ago, the idea for a poultry ranch that would contribute to research and education began to take shape in Neisz’s mind.

Rooster Ridge would stand a world apart from the poultry operations run by big, nationwide companies, where hundreds of thousands of birds are raised together in huge barns, and shot full of antibiotics to ward off disease.

“Our birds will be raised individually. They’ll be free ranging, USDA certified poultry, and we’ll have a poultry vet on duty,” Neisz said.

She said subjects for research at Rooster Ridge could include the causes and effects of Marek’s Disease, a highly contagious poultry malady caused by a virus, and Newcastle Disease, a virus that is found in both wild and domestic birds.

She said she wants to show that bird diseases can be eliminated through genetics, cleanliness and top-notch animal husbandry.

“I don’t plan to have any chemicals,” she said. “Our birds won’t see an anti-biotic.”

Neisz’s vision doesn’t even stop there. She said Rooster Ridge will be a model of environmental sustainability, utilizing geothermal and wind power for energy needs.

“It will be completely off the grid,” she said.

Scott Johnson, also of Union, is helping Neisz with her dream. His family has agreed to provide the land for the operation, on a parcel along Bidwell Road outside  North Powder.

But actual construction of the facility is a long way off, because Neisz is still in the process of forming her non-profit corporation. Completion of a five member board of directors is a stumbling block at present.

Neisz said she, Union businessman Dennis Falk, Dr. Kim Montee of the Union family Health Center, and a fourth person she declined to name are already serving on the board.

She said needs to find one more more member, someone with knowledge about organization and operation of non-profits, before she can finish the application for non-profit status.

“I’ve got credible people, a good cross section, but I’m at a standstill  until I find that board member with a non-profit background,” she said.

Once the board is fully formed, Neisz said she will proceed with articles of incorporation and by laws. After the application for non-profit status is approved, the board will begin its search for grant funding.

She said she thinks Rooster Ridge can one day become a busy facility employing up to 20 people and sustaining itself through sales of poultry products.

“Eventually I’m hoping this will take care of 100 percent of our financing and we won‘t have to tap grants,” she said. “The sales will support our research.”

People interested in serving on the board of directors, or needing more information, should call Neisz at 541-562-5474.