Poultry

The Georgia poultry industry is a highly mechanized production complex that markets chicken and egg products around the globe. On an average day, Georgia produces 24.6 million pounds of chicken and 14 million eggs. Major poultry processors based in Georgia include 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.

Early History

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: Turning Point

World War II (1941-45) accelerated the growth of the Georgia poultry industry. The War Food Administration reserved all the processed chicken in north Georgia, and thus the Jewell company and others now had a guaranteed buyer. The war also spurred a shift from "New York dressed" (that is, with head, feet, and entrails intact) to fully processed chickens (without head, feet, and entrails), and later to frozen birds, which became the industry standard. Jewell's addition of a feed mill and rendering plant in 1954 completed the vertical integration of his company. Jewell's example was repeated by other Georgia poultry entrepreneurs, such as D. W. Brooks of Gold Kist.

The Chicken Boom

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. By 1995 Georgia annually processed more than 5 billion pounds of chicken. In 1998 Georgia emerged as the top broiler-producing state in the country, and in 2003 the state continued to rank first in production of broilers and sixth in production of eggs.
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.

Chicken Geography

Since the poultry industry sprouted from Hall County roots in the 1930s, production has been concentrated in north Georgia. In 1997 twenty-six of the thirty-two Georgia counties that produced more than 10 million broilers each were located in the northern half of the state. The top producer, 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.

Labor

To convert live chickens into a saleable product, companies have employed workers in processing plants, hatcheries, feed mills, and chicken-catching crews. Initially, the plants employed mostly rural white women and some African Americans, as well as white farmers and construction workers during the off-season. Though processing work allowed farm women to earn a cash income, the pay was low and the work highly repetitive, unhealthy, and dangerous. In some Gainesville plants in the early 1970s, annual employee turnover rates approached 400 percent.
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.

The Contract System

Chicken growing in Georgia has changed dramatically since the 1930s. Due to improving technology, advances in poultry science, and the need for constant refinancing to modernize chicken houses, the number of growers has shrunk. In Hall County only one-sixth of the number of contract growers in 1950 produced six times as many chickens in 1997.
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.

Globalization: Exports

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.

Globalization: Labor

In the 1980s Georgia's chicken processors turned to a new source of labor: migrants from Latin America. During the 1990s the Latino population of Georgia increased by 300 percent. In the same period Hall County's Latino population grew by nearly 500 percent. By the opening of the new millennium, the overwhelming majority of production workers in Georgia's processing plants were immigrants from Latin America, mainly from Mexico. To integrators, these workers appeared to provide a more stable, reliable work force, and turnover rates dropped. For immigrant workers, poultry plants provided unheard-of high wages and benefits.
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 Institute 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.
close

Loading

Further Reading
David Griffith, "Hay Trabajo: Poultry Processing, Rural Industrialization, and the Latinization of Low-Wage Labor," in Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America, ed. Donald D. Stull, Michael J. Broadway, and David Griffith (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 129-51.

Greig Guthey, "Mexican Places in Southern Spaces: Globalization, Work, and Daily Life in and around the North Georgia Poultry Industry," in Latino Workers in the Contemporary South, ed. Arthur D. Murphy, Colleen Blanchard, and Jennifer A. Hill (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 57-67.

Gordon Sawyer, The Agribusiness Poultry Industry: A History of Its Development (New York: Exposition Press, 1971).

Brian S. Wills, "D. W. Brooks: Gold Kist's Goodwill Ambassador," Georgia Historical Quarterly 74 (fall 1990): 487-502.
Cite This Article
Weinberg, Carl. "Poultry." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 02 September 2014. Web. 21 September 2014.
From Our Home Page
Atlanta Campaign

The "Atlanta campaign" is the name given by historians to the military operations that took place in north Georgia during the Civ

Read more...
Poultry

The Georgia poultry industry is a highly mechanized production complex that markets chicken and egg products around the globe.

Read more...
UGA Football

As of the 2005 season the University of Georgia (UGA) football program has w

Read more...
Zoo Atlanta

Zoo Atlanta, in Atlanta's historic

Read more...
Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries