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The Georgia poultry Gold Kist, Fieldale Farms, Claxton, Mar-Jac, and Cagle's. These vertically integrated companies combine all the phases of the business—raw materials, processing, and distribution—within a single company. Although based elsewhere, a number of other poultry companies also operate in Georgia, including Tyson, Con-Agra, and Continental Grain. Poultry products, including turkeys, earn more than any other Georgia crop. The statewide economic impact of the industry is an estimated $13.5 billion annually.
In the early twentieth century chickens in Georgia were raised primarily for their eggs. Gradually, farm women began to market their eggs and chickens on a bigger scale. By 1924 north Georgia chickens were sold out of state by rail. Even before the devastating 1929 stock-market crash, the 1920s were a disaster for most Georgia farmers. Then, in the 1930s, along came a Gainesville feed salesman named Jesse Jewell, who offered north Georgia farmers a deal: he would sell them baby chicks and feed on credit. When the chicks were grown, Jewell's company, J. D. Jewell, would buy back the adult chickens (broilers) at a price that would cover his costs and guarantee farmers a profit. Once Jewell signed on enough farmers to produce broilers for him, he invested in his own processing plant and hatchery.
World War II D. W. Brooks of Gold Kist.
After World War II it seemed that everyone in north Georgia was getting into the chicken business. In Hall County the number of farms that raised mainly chickens rose from 57 to 1,044 between 1939 and 1950. Poultry production soared in the 1970s and 1980s as Americans consumed less red meat and more chicken.
Many Georgia residents credit the chicken boom with turning parts of the countryside green again, since chicken manure (litter) is an excellent fertilizer. Others point to the harmful environmental impact of the industry, from fly infestation to polluted water. The potential construction of a new poultry-industry facility has caused controversy in a number of Georgia communities.
Since Franklin County, and neighboring Banks, Habersham, Hall, Jackson, and Madison counties produced more than a quarter of the state's total broilers. Processing plants, feed mills, and hatcheries dot north Georgia. At the same time, the poultry industry spans nearly the entire state. About three-quarters of all Georgia counties commercially produce chicken, and the 10-million-plus group includes Tattnall County, in south Georgia.
Poultry production is also moving increasingly south, where land is cheaper and more plentiful and as cooling technology has been improved to cope with the hot summers of south Georgia. As of 2002 south Georgia's share of 10-million-plus counties rose from less than 20 percent to 35 percent. Long-established Claxton Poultry in Evans County is only the first of a growing number of processing plants in south Georgia. Others include Tyson plants in Buena Vista, Dawson, Oglethorpe, and Vienna; Cagle's in Camilla; and Gold Kist in Douglas. In May 2004 Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms announced that it would build a new poultry production complex on sites in Cook and Colquitt counties.
To convert live chickens into a saleable product, companies have employed workers in processing plants,
Conditions in some plants led to attempts at unionization. In the early 1950s a majority of workers at J. D. Jewell voted for representation by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, though violent attacks on union representatives pushed back the union drive. At Mar-Jac, in Gainesville, workers secured a union contract. Several other north Georgia plants were unionized, and truck drivers at several Gainesville feed mills signed up with the Teamsters Union.
Whereas early agreements were often verbal, everything now revolves around a detailed written contract, applied to one flock of birds at a time. According to the Georgia Poultry Federation, the average return on investment while growers are paying off their mortgages ranges from 4.5 to 7 percent. But there is no guarantee that an integrator will continue to contract with growers. The resulting insecurity has led Georgia growers to band together to bolster their bargaining power with the integrators. North Georgia growers formed the Georgia Contract Poultry Growers Association. In south Georgia growers joined the United Poultry Growers Association.
In the 1950s Georgia companies began turning to exports to contend with overproduction and the need to sell a surplus of dark meat. They initially succeeded in Germany, but after a disastrous trade war, integrators turned to Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Later, Georgia companies began exporting to the former Soviet Union and China. By 2001 Georgia exported poultry worth more than $308 million annually, more than any other state. The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council is located in Stone Mountain.
In the 1980s Georgia's chicken processors turned to a new source of labor: migrants from Latin America. During the 1990s
From its humble barnyard beginnings the Georgia poultry industry has grown immensely. The industry directly employs more than 47,000 Georgians. Another 77,000 state residents work indirectly for the industry—at the University of Georgia, the Georgia I
nstitute of Technology, pharmaceutical companies, equipment suppliers, and county agricultural extension offices.
Because of its global reach the Georgia poultry industry is intimately tied to the world economy and international politics. The Russian ban on chicken imports in March 2002 hit Georgians hard. Suspicions of ties to "international terrorism" led federal investigators to a Gainesville poultry plant. In 2001, in an attempted unionization bid, nearly a quarter of the largely immigrant Guatemalan production workers at Gold Kist in Ellijay voted for a union. Whether these events represent a foretaste of future trends or are only incidental growing pains remains to be seen.
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