A Poultry Story: 60-Year History Is a Fascinating Tale
The history of the poultry industry over the past 60 years is a fascinating combination of innovations in genetics, nutrition, animal health, food safety, and processing technology. What brings this history to life for me though are the stories about the early poultry pioneers who took great risks to build companies from scratch.
Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century philosopher and writer, said “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The same can be said for the men and women who played an important role in the history of poultry in Georgia and the rest of the United States.
I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from Abit Massey, longtime president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. Abit now serves as president emeritus and is a great storyteller in his own right. He knew many of the Georgia poultry pioneers firsthand, and often on our rides together to Atlanta, I have had the pleasure of hearing him retell the stories that he heard first from others about the early days of the “modern” poultry industry in Georgia.
I might get into trouble for “naming names” and leaving someone out, but the Georgia surnames are familiar to everyone in the poultry industry — Arrendale, Austin, Bagwell, Brooks, Bruce, Burruss, Cagle, Cleveland, Crider, Cromartie, Folger, Fries, Harrison, Hatfield, McCranie, Strickland, Sutherland, Tucker, Ward, Wilson, and many others too numerous to name.
For those of you who haven’t heard it yet, I would like to share my favorite story about how an early poultry company got its start. Around 1940, Mr. Julius Bishop, a graduate of the University of Georgia, was working as a clerk in the Athens post office when 300 baby chicks arrived. As was apparently common back then, the chicks carried a COD tag with a fictitious address, a tactic the sender hoped would yield a few dollars if a buyer materialized. Mr. Bishop and Postmaster J.R. Myers called the feed and seed stores, but nobody wanted to buy this shipment
The next morning it was clear that someone needed to take ownership of the chicks soon or they would not make it. Bishop told the Postmaster that “these chicks aren’t worth a cent apiece.” Myers said, ‘’well, you just bought them for a cent apiece.” Bishop said he didn’t have a place to raise the chicks much less three dollars to buy them.
Bishop would later say it was the best favor anyone ever did for him in his life. He borrowed a dollar and a half from a friend who paid the rest, and Bishop temporarily moved the chicks into an empty bedroom of his house. He built a “Louisiana Brooder” in his backyard. When they were grown, he sold the chickens to his neighbor Hubert Bell of Bell’s Food Store chain. After that flock, he built more brooders and soon had 3,000 chickens in his backyard.
Mr. Bishop’s backyard business would grow into Bishop’s Hatchery and Athens Poultry Co., which has evolved over the years through different owners, and it continues to operate as the Pilgrim’s Pride location in Athens, Georgia. Just think of the many millions in payroll dollars and farming opportunities made possible by a chance meeting of wayward baby chicks and a man willing to take a business risk!
The 1950s was a time of dramatic growth and improvements in the poultry industry. Bird genetics and nutrition were making rapid strides, and entrepreneurs across the nation were taking risks and building businesses that would evolve into the vertically integrated industry that we are familiar with today.
In a 1956 University of Georgia Extension publication entitled “Georgia’s Broiler Industry,” Arthur Gannon, Extension Poultryman — a title you don’t hear often nowadays — wrote that Georgia broiler production in 1956 would exceed 1955 by 20 percent or more. It’s hard to imagine that kind of growth and what all it would take to support it in terms of infrastructure, feed capacity, breeder flocks, etc. Stories like Mr. Bishop’s were being repeated in one form or fashion in dozens and dozens of ways throughout Georgia and the nation during this period of rapid growth.
In 1955, the average live weight of a broiler chicken was 3 pounds with a feed conversion rate of 3:1. Gannon’s 1956 publication made the argument that the stage was set for dramatic growth in the decades to come. Gannon was right about that.
Per capita chicken consumption at the time was 22.7 pounds, while total red meat consumption was 161 pounds per person. Gannon wrote that “some have predicted that we can double the consumption of broilers.” That prediction came true too, but it went on to triple and quadruple from there.
It is a safe bet that in the coming decades we are not likely to see the dramatic growth that our industry experienced in the last half of the 20th century . . . but who knows? Even the most optimistic observers in the 1950s probably would not have predicted what has been accomplished over the past 60 years.
At any rate, there will be new stories to tell, perhaps not as colorful as the ones from the 1950s, but important stories nonetheless. Shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a story you would like to share about the early days of the poultry industry. I’ll file it away and promise to retell it down the road every chance I get.