The Magazine of South Carolina

Poultry in Motion

The chicken industry in South Carolina is "big - REAL big."

by Aïda Rogers

Somewhere near Borneo, the Sultan of Brunei is dining contentedly on a delicacy from South Carolina: chicken feet.

"Chicken paws," corrects Matt Mathews. "There's a difference."

Mathews, Far East sales manager for Agri Trade International, Inc., has been to Hong Kong and seen it for himself - Orientals are eating chicken paws the way Americans are eating chicken wings. Feeding the frenzy is Columbia Farms, a Midlands-based enterprise that believes in using the whole chicken. Columbia Farms, which established Agri Trade to export its products, is one reason South Carolina is doing so well in the poultry business.

Ask Becky Walton, public information officer for the state agriculture department, how big the poultry business is in South Carolina, and her reply is brief and blunt: "Big. Real big."

Poultry, in fact, is a $1 billion industry, says Connie Smith, executive director of the South Carolina Poultry Federation. While tobacco is the state's largest cash crop, or row crop, poultry is South Carolina's largest agribusiness. It includes eggs, broilers, quail, turkeys, pigeons and spring chickens. And for anybody who thinks chicken houses are the smelly, rickety, squawk-filled buildings of before, a return visit is due. These are high-tech nests.

"Everything is automated and state-of-the-art," Smith says. "You feel you've walked into something from outer space."

Smith, who grew up on a farm, says she and her sister were the automatic waterers and feeders. Those jobs are extinct now. "Everything is remote-control and very impressive."

Impressive as well is South Carolina's strides in the turkey business. From 1983 to 1993, turkey production tripled from 2.2 million to 6.5 million turkeys raised, reports Steve Pavlasek, deputy state statistician with the United States Department of Agriculture. That moves South Carolina from 16th in the nation in 1983 to 10th a decade later. "I'd say that's pretty significant," says Pavlasek. North Carolina ranks first nationally in turkey production.

In broilers, South Carolina is ranked 13th nationally. Georgia is second, North Carolina fourth; Arkansas, home of Tyson's, is first. Though South Carolina is significantly behind its neighbors, it's not "poultried-out," says Smith, pointing to North Carolina and Georgia. Poultry companies from other states are coming to South Carolina to set up shop in a place that's bird heaven: hot but not too hot, and rural. After the South Carolina Poultry Federation was formed in 1987, incentives were offered to attract big farms. And they came.

From Salisbury, MD, came Perdue Farms, which in 1992 built the "most mechanized poultry processing plant in the country" in Dillon County. According to Poultry Marketing & Technology, the Perdue operation is a $42.5 million facility that includes, among other pieces of equipment, an automatic gizzard harvester. Perdue recently bought Showell Farms, another Maryland-based company that had put a broiler operation in Bennettsville.

Prestage Farms is a North Carolina-based company that put a new turkey processing plant in Kershaw County, in the tiny town of Cassatt. A $40 million operation supplying turkey for Louis Rich in Newberry, Prestage Farms opened last August.


MEANWHILE, back on the island of Brunei, the sultan is doing like other Asians - enjoying chicken paws. Served as a side dish, chicken paws can be fried, baked or steamed, says Mathews, the Agri Trade regional sales manager. "You eat them like you eat ribs."

Mathews, who has tried them himself, says people don't understand that the outer skin and nails are removed before the paws are cooked and spiced, giving them "a nice appearance."

His opinion?

"They taste pretty good," he says, pronouncing them "chewy."

Agri Trade exports about 250,000 pounds of paws a month through its contract with Columbia Farms, South Carolina's largest chicken processor. Mathews points out that with the marked preference for white meat in the United States, a "ready-made export market" existed for people who like dark. Drumsticks, wings and wing tips are especially popular in Asia.

Although chicken paws are not considered edible by the USDA, they are in Hong Kong. Poultry plants that once threw them out or ground them into a meal for animal feed can make money on them by processing and exporting them frozen to China. And with 1.2 billion people in China, that's a healthy market to be in, concludes Albin Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Farms. "There's just a phenomenal amount of people in that area of the world, and the demand has been growing steadily where almost every company in the U.S. now will pack them separately for export."

Columbia Farms also exports its products to Eastern Europe and Russia, where "quality meat that is cheap" is in demand, Johnson says. Traditionally beef eaters, Russians and Eastern Europeans haven't had much access to poultry or beef, Johnson explains. With his company's abundance of poultry, as well as bulk beef, cheese and eggs, Columbia Farms is able to supply. It exports to the Caribbean and Mexico, as well as Europe and along the Pacific Rim.

The one area that has no need for South Carolina-grown chickens is South America, Johnson says. Brazil is the only country in the world that can compete with the United States on a costwise basis.


NO DOUBT ABOUT IT, chicken is everywhere. Fried and grilled chicken sandwiches are on every fast-food menu; rarely is chicken salad unavailable at a hometown lunch place. It's a response to health and diet awareness. Indeed, Johnson says the poultry business hasn't had one declining year in the 30 he's been in it. Nor has he had a problem with salmonella, an issue he thinks is hyped by the media.

In South Carolina, broilers are currently the fastest-growing industry in agriculture, says Pavlasek, the USDA statistician. He predicts that if tobacco sales stay the same, broilers could pass that industry in total cash receipts. Lexington County, home of Leesville-based Columbia Farms and Amick Farms, produces more broilers than any other SC county - no doubt why Leesville is home of the SC Poultry Festival. Aiken and Sumter counties are second and third, respectively.

While home to Carolina Golden, a broiler operation that bought Campbell Soup, Sumter County also is home to two other poultry companies: the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in Sumter and Manchester Farms in Dalzell. The Palmetto Pigeon Plant, in operation since 1923, grows, processes and sells squab (as pigeon is known in restaurants and grocery stores) all over the country. New York is its heaviest market, says Tony Barwick, general manager, because "people in New York spend a lot of money." Squab retails for $6-7 in a grocery store; the average price as a restaurant entrée is about $25 in this area. Palmetto Pigeon Plant also produces poussin, or young spring chicken. Squab has been growing steadily in popularity in the past few years, Barwick says, with his company processing about 200,000 a year.

Manchester Farms got its start in 1971, when Bill Odom, then a poultry specialist with Campbell Soup, decided to raise quail for hunting. He liked the taste of European Pharoah quail better than the North American "Bob White" variety, and he started his own business three years later. Today, Manchester Farms is the biggest quail producer in the world, processing more than 5 million birds a year.

Though not as common as chicken, quail is becoming more familiar in today's finer restaurants. Janet Odom, Bill's wife, points out in the company's sales video that quail has half the fat grams of chicken and two fat grams fewer than turkey. Because quail is more expensive to raise, it's considered a white tablecloth item and costs about $12 as an entrée. Manchester Farms is marketing its quail to food distributors and res-taurants as an all-you-can-eat, buffet-style item. One buyer, The Compass Restaurant near Turbeville, reports that its weekly quail buffet is its "best special yet."

Traditionally served with wild rice or grits, quail has become more mainstream among diners than other wild game birds - duck or dove, for instance. Still, smoked quail on pizza was one of the offerings at last year's Taste of the Tidelands event at Litchfield Beach, and "it was absolutely fantastic," says Walton of the state agriculture de-partment.


THE SOUTH CAROLINA POULTRY FEDERATION is predicting that by 2000, growers will have to produce at least twice as much poultry and poultry products as they are now. It should be no surprise that such thriving businesses employ big-city public relations firms and circulate their own newsletters - the Chic-Chat is from Amick Farms; Manchester Farms produces Quail Tales and Columbia Farms puts out the Coop Scoop.

Broiler producers think it's important to note that chicken is cheaper now than it was in the '50s - about seven or eight cents less per pound. "In the middle '50s, you had a 3-cent stamp, 75-cent minimum wage, and chicken was about 55, 56 cents per pound," Johnson said. "Right now, it's about 47, 48 cents per pound."

And all the chicken is used, right down to the tongues, beaks, eyeballs, viscera and feathers. The remnants that are considered usable in the U.S. are processed into a meal used for animal feed. The rest are exported; Johnson doesn't know how they're used outside the country. Even the blood is saved separately and made into a meal of digestible protein later used for feed ingredients.

South Carolina doesn't have a "rendering" or "protein reduction plant" to process those parts, Johnson says. Columbia Farms relies on a Gastonia, NC company to do that. In the future, it may be logical for Columbia Farms to build its own, he adds.

Johnson, who has been named South Carolina Entrepreneur of the Year and is a past president of the National Broiler Council ("the real NBC,") eats chicken three to five times a week. He admits poultry is his life.

He laughs.

"Sell 'em or smell 'em."

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