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The future of Big Chicken

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

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About a year ago, chef Shaun Doty called to tell me about the future of chicken. He was organizing a trip with a handful of chefs from Atlanta to South Georgia for a tour of an innovative new chicken-farming program. He promised an operation that would be unlike anything I'd ever seen, a farm that had retooled each step of the process with humane practices and environmental forethought and turned chicken farming, a notoriously dirty industry, into something pleasant and forward thinking. "The real deal, bro," he said. "This is the way it should be done." He also promised some skeet shooting and quail hunting and a lot of bourbon. I told him I was in.

In the months since that trip, it has become clear that Doty isn't the only person in Georgia looking toward the future of chicken.

To call chicken farming in Georgia "big business" is to risk understatement. The United States raises more chicken than any country in the world; Georgia raises more chicken than any state in the country. Last year, more than six billion pounds of chicken meat were processed in the state, the product of 1.2 billion heads of chicken. If Georgia were a country unto itself, it would have the sixth largest chicken industry in the world, behind China and Brazil.

An average slaughterhouse here can kill and process nearly a quarter-million chickens in a workday. At any given moment, there are more than 240,000,000 chickens living here, almost 25 times Georgia's human population. Two of the state's biggest universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology, have departments devoted to poultry science and food processing, where new technologies to raise, kill, and process chickens at ever faster and more efficient rates are being developed. The International Poultry Expo, held each year in Atlanta, is the world's largest convention for the poultry and egg industries. When Gainesville, Ga., erected a monument to being the "Poultry Capital of the World," the Chamber of Commerce was not just being cute and Southern and boastful. It was telling the God's honest truth.

Poultry contributes an estimated $18.4 billion to Georgia's economy annually and most people that I've met in the industry have a plan to get a larger slice of that pie. For the past century, earning more has meant engineering ways to produce more chicken meat in less time. Unsurprisingly, that's led to a dirty, environmentally unsustainable, and very profitable business.

Now, big chicken is looking to do a makeover. A few farms are opting to raise chickens under open skies and in grassy fields, rather than the dank warehouses that are the industry standard. Companies that formerly pumped chickens full of drugs are advertising slogans such as "HORMONE FREE," "NO ANTIBIOTICS ADMINISTERED," "ALL VEGETARIAN DIET." Nonprofits are lobbying for more regulations, trying to curb the massive ecological damages that come along with the massive profits. Some chefs, including Doty, have their fingers crossed that chicken, long considered a budget protein, can be reintroduced to consumers as a meat of notable provenance worth spending real money on. You can see this shift in any number of places, but if you're going to start anywhere, you might as well start here in the chicken capital of the world.

If you drive south of Columbus, Ga., deep into the country where cell phone signals are scarce, you'll come upon a little middle of nowhere called Bluffton, not far from another middle of nowhere called Blakely. Between the two is a farm that has operated continuously since James Harris founded it in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. Over the main dirt road entrance is a large, cast-iron sign bearing a single letter — H — for the Harris family that still operates it today. They call this place White Oak Pastures.

Turn your car down the dirt drive and you'll immediately notice the grass on either side, green blades of it stretching out for a thousand acres. Most chickens raised in America never come in contact with grass for the entirety of their two-month lives. The vast majority of broilers (that's industry parlance for chickens raised for meat) live in dim, long warehouses with wood shavings for floors. Here at White Oak, every animal headed for the slaughterhouse spends its days grazing or, in the case of chickens, scratching and pecking its way through the pastures. In a store or on a menu, that meat will be labeled grass-fed beef or pastured poultry, the two products that account for most of White Oak's sales.

"Pastured poultry" is a new term, popularized only in the past few years, that actually means what most people think "free range" means. Though free range sounds nice, the USDA definition only calls for a vague "access to the outdoors," which in practice can amount to as little as a small open door at the end of a warehouse. Pastured poultry means birds raised outdoors in grass, no legal tricks.

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