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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.

POULTRY PASSION: After two decades of conventional cattle farming, Will Harris switched his farm to a grass-fed beef and pastured poultry operation. “I have the zeal of a reformed whore,” he says.
  • Joeff Davis
  • POULTRY PASSION: After two decades of conventional cattle farming, Will Harris switched his farm to a grass-fed beef and pastured poultry operation. “I have the zeal of a reformed whore,” he says.

On the bright morning that Doty and the chefs arrived at White Oak, Jenni Harris was waiting to hustle them into the slaughterhouse, where the last cow of the morning was about to meet its end.

A full-grown cow is a majestic thing. It weighs around 1,200 pounds. To see life pass away from the animal's eyes with the flick of a captive bolt is a sight that will humble you and maybe turn your stomach. The chefs stood there for the whole scene, through the evisceration of balloon-size organs and the peel of skin from flesh. I watched them watch, then turn away, then turn back, and then turn away again. A few blamed their hangovers.

Jenni, 26, is of the fifth generation of the Harris family to work on this farm. She didn't skip a beat during the slaughter, explaining each step and keeping nothing out of view. Whenever the chefs pulled out their iPhones, she'd say, "Go ahead. Take some pictures."

Much of the livestock industry operates on a no news is good news policy. It generally discourages visitors, bans photography, and hides quietly behind blandly industrial walls. In Iowa, Missouri, and Utah, the livestock lobby has been successful in criminalizing unauthorized photos at agricultural facilities. If the general public ever glimpses the inside of a slaughterhouse, it's usually because animal-rights activists are trying to expose egregious abuses and bad practices.

This is not the case at White Oak Pastures. The farm welcomes plenty of visitors because the place is proud of its methods. Letting people take pictures is one of them.

During our tour of the slaughterhouse, the vegetable farm, the solar barn, and the pastures, Jenni recounted her family's story. It's tempting to assume that a farm owned by a single family and operated continuously on the same land for nearly 150 years had simply kept good, old practices in place. That couldn't be further from the truth.

When Jenni's father, a stocky cowboy named Will, turned 40 in 1995, he looked around and saw a farm that he didn't like working at anymore. After two decades, he was tired of manipulating cows with hormones, tired of pumping chemicals into his land, tired of crowding cows into muddy, stinky feed lots, and tired of loading miserable, unhealthy cows onto trailers to cart them hundreds of miles to an industrial slaughterhouse. Most guys, when they have a midlife crisis, get a convertible and younger girlfriend. Will decided to get a grass-fed beef farm.

For the first time in his life, he took out loans and leveraged everything he could. He learned about raising cows the old way, without drugs or corn or any of the other factory-farming tricks he'd learned at UGA. With the help of Temple Grandin, the autistic pioneer of animal welfare, he built a slaughterhouse on his property.

When the neighboring farms heard about Will's plans, Jenni said the transition went over "like a turd in a bucket of Kool-Aid," as if their own farming operations were being indirectly criticized.

So, what do the neighbors think now?

"Most of those neighbors work for us now," she said.

Today, Will is something like the Southern poster cowboy for grass-fed beef. He is tall and thick; he wears a white goatee and a white Stetson stained with sweat from his bald head. He cuts the ideal image of an honest farmer and passionately evangelizes the messages of animal welfare and environmental sustainability, which are just a couple of reasons why magazines like taking his picture and Whole Foods, his biggest customer, likes to bring him in for events at its stores. When I compared his passion to a preacher's, he corrected me, saying, "I have the zeal of a reformed whore."

Everyone that knows him has a favorite "Will story." Mine involves a day, months later, when he was driving me down a highway in his open-top Jeep and talking about a local criminal he suspected of stealing from his farm. To demonstrate what he did to dissuade the criminal, he grabbed my head, slammed his forehead against mine and stared into my eyes for what seemed like a full minute, all while the Jeep barreled down the highway. His message didn't need to be spoken. No one fucks with Will Harris.

After operating in the red for years and almost losing the farm trying pay for the slaughterhouse, Harris' bet on grass-fed beef eventually paid out to the tune of $20 million in annual sales. That success led to his next gamble, stepping away from what he calls a "monoculture" farm. In 2011, he started bringing in chickens, a few hundred at a time, in a shift toward what some refer to as Serengeti model farming. Probably best known from Michael Pollan's description in The Omnivore's Dilemma, the approach involves, "A half dozen animal species ... raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis. [The farmer] is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage." What Pollan is saying in that bit of romantic poetry is that large animals, like cows, eat and excrete different things from a pasture than smaller animals, like chickens. With the right rotation of animals, a farmer can approximate the symbiotic grazing relationships that govern large natural pastures like the Serengeti. Today, there are nearly 10 different animals, including sheep, geese, ducks, guinea hens, pigs, cows, and chickens all grazing in a constant rotation on White Oak's pastures.

FIRST STEPS: For the first few weeks of their lives at White Oak Pastures, baby chicks are kept in warm brooders until they have the feathers and strength to live on the pasture.
  • Joeff Davis
  • FIRST STEPS: For the first few weeks of their lives at White Oak Pastures, baby chicks are kept in warm brooders until they have the feathers and strength to live on the pasture.

In practice, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful scene at a farm. As Jenni led us from pasture to pasture, the chefs were audibly impressed. A flock of guinea hens went squawking across the pasture and the chefs followed, ooohhhing and aaahhhing in their own ways. Sheep grazed on one particularly lush patch, ducks floated along in a small pond, cows lumbered in the shady distance, and here and there were the chickens, living around portable little houses. Some scratched and pecked in the dirt, others huddled in the shade of the house. A couple of times I noticed a large, white dog, the kind that could probably take great pleasure in eating a few chickens raw, laying down by a chicken house as the birds skipped around him. White Oak raises Great Pyrenees dogs with its chickens. The dogs become bonded to the flocks and live to protect them from predators like coyotes. "Forget chickens," one of the chefs joked. "I'd be fine raising my kids here."

Of course, all of these animals are being raised for slaughter, which is where we headed next. The chickens are kept in a dim room prior to slaughter, the darkness meant to calm their nerves. We watched as a man hung a single bird upside down and pressed an electrified knife to its neck. The man and the chicken stayed in that position, quite still, until the bird was dead. The chicken hung there, blood draining out below it, until it was pulled by a worker in the next room to be defeathered in a cylinder roughly the size of a washing machine. With the feathers cleaned, the bird arrived in a room where a team trimmed off the feet and sliced out the organs with nimble flicks of their knives. A USDA inspector stood at the end of the line to check the bird by hand. The process is slow and deliberate, designed to avoid mistakes and suffering at the obvious cost of efficiency.

It was lunchtime, so we walked over to a little trailer where the farm subsidizes lunch for employees at $5 a plate. We took our plates of smoked chicken and greens and sat down at a table inside. If anything we'd seen during the day had troubled the chefs, they didn't show it. In a few minutes, their plates were clean.

Later on, we drove down to a skeet range, where the chefs drank beer and tried to aim shotguns at little white discs as they sailed over a pasture. After letting them fool around for a bit, Jenni picked up a shotgun and nailed about a dozen in a row. Later on, the chefs stayed at a quail lodge and played poker and drank too much bourbon and worried, just a bit, that they couldn't get in touch with their wives without a cell phone signal here in the country. In the morning, they walked out into some quail fields and managed to hit a few birds without shooting one another. When it was time to leave, the chefs were sent along with some quail and a lot of chicken from White Oak's freezers, a thank you for coming down to see the farm.

Before the guns and the booze, the chicken farm equivalent of the wine-and-dine, I took a short ride in the truck with Brian Sapp, White Oak's director of operations, on the way to the skeet range. The gamble on chicken had put a financial strain on the farm and, at the time, they were far from breaking even on the program. His stress was palpable.

"I mean it's real nice that these chefs want to come down and have a field trip," he said, a little irony detectable in his Southern drawl. "But it'd be a lot better if they actually just bought some chicken. Seems like some chefs are fine with saying one thing and doing another."

CLUCKIN' ALONG: A baby chick wanders at White Oak.
  • Joeff Davis
  • CLUCKIN' ALONG: A baby chick wanders at Whie Oak.

The trip to White Oak Pastures was more than a field trip for Doty. He'd been a proud customer of the farm for years, buying thousands of pounds of grass-fed ground beef for a small burger chain he co-owned called Yeah! Burger. At the time of the visit, he was in the beginning stages of a new project he hoped would be spending a lot of money on White Oak's chickens.

Doty has had a career as a chef that most in his business would envy. After interning at Michelin-starred restaurants in Western Europe in his 20s, he returned to Atlanta in 1997 to be the right-hand man of Guenter Seeger, an iconic German chef considered Atlanta's best at that time. Doty opened his namesake restaurant, Shaun's, in 2006 and earned four-star reviews. Local foodies spoke about his Southern-styled reinventions of classic European dishes, like pork schnitzel and chopped liver, with hushed reverence. In 2010, to some surprise, he closed Shaun's to focus full time on a chain that serves cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and fries.

I met Doty after I offhandedly mentioned his career shift in an article about another chef, making light of his decision to close his namesake restaurant to run a burger joint. Shortly after that story ran, Doty asked me to get a cup of coffee and told me that I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about.

He wanted to make an argument for what's called "fast casual" dining. As he explained it, we expect fine-dining restaurants to source local, seasonal ingredients from farms that operate with humane and ecologically sound practices. We expect a starred restaurant to be able to tell us about the provenance of ingredients, what the cow was fed, how many miles away the greens were grown. That's simply the bar for operating a respectable restaurant in America today, no matter the culinary style. A middle-class person can afford to eat in a restaurant like that a few times a month, depending on how much income one cares to spend on food. What about all of the meals in between? This is where the fast-casual restaurant comes in.

A couple that celebrates an anniversary with a five-course prix-fixe meal at Bacchanalia, where many of the ingredients are sourced from the owners' personal farm on the outskirts of Atlanta, does not necessarily stop caring about local food after that meal ends. Whether they can afford to care is a different matter. Those consumers can probably justify regularly spending $10 on a burger for lunch, especially when the beef is grass-fed in state, the bun is baked in the neighborhood that morning, and the lettuce is hydroponically grown on the south side of the city. Doty's argument to me was that a fast-casual chain done right can do as much or more for local farmers than a four-star restaurant because people can afford to eat that way more often.

The fast-casual equation isn't a simple one. Better ingredients mean smaller margins, smaller margins mean you need more customers, and more customers mean you need to convince a lot of people that they want to start paying 10 bucks for a quick cheeseburger at lunch when they've been paying four dollars for a cheeseburger most of their lives. In the case of Yeah! Burger, the gamble worked. The chain has a couple of busy locations and a loyal following in two neighborhoods.

Doty said that morning how proud he was to be buying so much of Will Harris' beef, that it felt like the right thing to be supporting such a clean, honest operation with his burger joint. He explained that when he brought a guy from the fast-food industry in to see Yeah! Burger's kitchen, the guy was confused. "Where are all of your freezers?" he asked. The guy was blown away when Doty explained they were using almost all fresh, unfrozen ingredients.

One problem with Yeah! Burger, at least from a business perspective, is that it wasn't a unique idea. At the same time that it was opening, television personality Richard Blais was ramping up his burger chain, Flip Burger Boutique, into multiple Southeast locations and Farm Burger, a similar chain concept, was earning a following for a slightly more rustic and chef-driven feel. The market was crowded.

Around the time that Doty organized the trip to White Oak, he was busy cashing out his share of the Yeah! Burger chain and putting together investors to focus on another fast-casual concept built around a different protein: chicken.

A number of months later, he invited me to lunch with a few investors in this chicken business at a busy Mexican joint south of the city called Taqueria La Oaxaqueña. We passed around big plates of goat tacos and lengua tortas, making small talk until one of the investors said what everyone at the table was thinking. "I want to know," he said, "how is it possible to do for chicken what people have done for cheeseburgers?" That, for the investors seated at that table, was quite literally a multimillion dollar question. If they could create a successful fast-casual chicken concept ahead of the curve, before the market got crowded like it did for cheeseburgers, their investments could stand to pay off very well.

BIG RIG: Fieldale trucks hundreds of thousands of chickens to its processing plants every day.
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIG RIG: Fieldale trucks hundreds of thousands of chickens to its processing plants every day.

The chain was pitched around the idea of rotisserie chicken and vegetable sides, something that should be as familiar to the consumer as a cheeseburger and fries. Yet, there are a couple of basic differences between the two. For example, the person buying rotisserie chicken is probably making a more health-conscious decision than the person buying a cheeseburger. The sides would need to be healthier than fries. The bigger, more unavoidable difference, though, is that beef is sometimes considered luxurious and chicken is almost always considered budget.

Americans eat fried chicken by the 20-piece bucket, we eat hot wings by the dozen at the bar while watching a game, and we grab a shriveled rotisserie bird in the checkout line without thinking twice. With beef, we can ogle the marbleized fat in prime cuts or pay exorbitant markups for dry-aged or Kobe. Those luxuries have little to do with the virtues of a grass-fed cheeseburger, but their mere existence translates into a higher psychological value for beef. Beef is something you buy when you're treating yourself and happy to spend some money; chicken is what you buy when you're watching your wallet or your waist.

For Doty and his investors, the markup on this chicken chain had to stay within a certain range. The metrics of fast casual are nonnegotiable. The restaurant should be limited-service or self-service. The average entrée should hover near $10. The décor and flavors should be recognizably better than a fast-food restaurant, but neither should be sophisticated enough to put off or confuse the average taste. Screw any of that up and you risk losing the target customers.

By the time of this investor meeting, ordering the bulk of the chain's chickens from White Oak Pastures, as Doty had at one point considered, was already in question. Part of that is because, as he explained, pastured chicken "eats differently." The breasts are smaller and the bird, as a whole, can be a little bit tougher, with stronger ligaments and tendons. It also happens to have more flavor, more earthy depth and less watery blandness, than any other chicken on the market.

A chicken breast is usually regarded as a big, tender, juicy thing that doesn't have a lot of flavor, a direct result, of course, of the animal that lived before it became an entrée on a plate. The industry standard for broilers is the Cobb500, a trademarked bird that embodies decades of selective breeding and poultry research. The company that advertises the Cobb500 boasts the bird's attributes, including "lowest cost of live weight produced" and "best broiler uniformity for processing," while offering spreadsheets that show projected growth rates per day, down to the last gram. Those spreadsheets end at day 56, which is a week or two longer than most conventional broilers will ever live.

When they began raising chickens at White Oak, they tried a number of different breeds, including some of those trademarked birds. "It wasn't right," Jenni says. "They just laid down on the ground on their side. They didn't know how to scratch around. They didn't know how to be chickens." White Oak settled on a proprietary red-feathered breed that can hold its own on a pasture while taking about 12 weeks to get up to weight.

That points to the other big difference between chicken and beef. While grass-fed beef costs about 25-30 percent more than conventional beef, pastured poultry can run as much as 200 percent more than conventional chicken. There are dense, technical reasons for that cost, like the variables in feed conversion rates in different species, but the clearest reason is a simple one: Raising an animal for twice as long as your competitors is a very unusual business plan in the livestock market.

At the meeting, Doty was still undecided about what chicken to use at the chain. He mentioned briefly considering Springer Mountain Farms, a chicken brand located just north of Atlanta, before deciding against it. I wanted to know more about that decision-making process, but he didn't say much except that it didn't seem right. He told me he'd get back to me when he settled on a chicken.

Springer Mountain Farms is a brand some chefs brag about using in Atlanta restaurants. It's located very close to the city, closer even than White Oak Pastures. Its packaging advertises a list of all-natural practices, including "NO Antibiotics Ever," "All Vegetarian Diet," and "American Humane CERTIFIED."

VERTICAL INTEGRATION: Adjacent to Fieldale’s corporate headquarters, the company manufactures 17,500 tons of chicken feed a week.
  • Joeff Davis
  • VERTICAL INTEGRATION: Adjacent to Fieldale’s corporate headquarters, the company manufactures 17,500 tons of chicken feed a week.

I wrote Michael Wall, director of programs at Georgia Organics, hoping that he could tell me more about Springer Mountain. He wrote back, "Never been there. Several years ago Georgia Organics requested a tour of the Springer Mountain facilities because we were unsure of their practices. There were no responses to our requests."

Springer Mountain Farms' website has pictures of rolling Appalachian Mountains. It has a lengthy explanation of the benefits of raising chickens without antibiotics. It has an online marketplace, cutely illustrated as a small-town storefront, in which you can buy whole chickens, boneless skinless breasts, thin-sliced boneless skinless breasts, wings, and other parts in large denominations. It has recipes. It has a map that will locate stores and restaurants carrying Springer Mountain Farms chicken within a certain number of miles of your ZIP code (111 "Places to Eat" within 15 miles of "30316"). It even has a smiling picture of Paula Deen, the brand's spokesperson, whose blue eyes happen to be a dead ringer for the blue hues of the company's logo. What it doesn't have is an address, which is typically what you need to visit a farm.

The website does have a phone number. I dialed it a few times and never got a response.

After poking around some more, I tracked the number to a company called Fieldale Farms, which seemed to be the parent company of Springer Mountain. When I dialed that number, I was quickly connected to a guy named Tom Hensley. I was working for Atlanta magazine at the time and Hensley happened to be a longtime subscriber. So, we got off to a friendly start and chatted for a few minutes before I told him that I wanted to come visit Springer Mountain Farms and see the operation.

He paused for a second and, I think, chuckled. That's when he explained to me that chicken farming didn't really work like that anymore, that there wasn't any "Springer Mountain Farm" to visit per se, but that I was welcome to come visit his office. He gave me the address to Fieldale Farms Corporation — 555 Broiler Blvd. — the company that he is president of, and said that he'd have time for coffee the following week. He also mentioned that cameras weren't welcome.

The Fieldale offices have that recognizably mid-'80s corporate architecture, all mirrored glass and sharp edges, and they sit immediately adjacent to a rail yard and a few nearly skyscraper-size concrete towers, where Fieldale manufactures 17,500 tons of chicken feed a week. Inside the office, I noticed two things: a very nice sign near the front door that read "WELCOME WYATT WILLIAMS ATLANTA MAGAZINE" and an impressive collection of ceramic chickens. In a few minutes, I was sitting down on the other side of the desk from Hensley.

Hensley joined the company in 1972 as a CPA and, though he's now the president, he speaks with the precision of a lifelong numbers man. He was quick to put the business in the context of household names such as Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride that are big enough to make Fieldale look like the little guy. Tyson averages 37 million heads of chicken a week, while Fieldale only averages about 3 million. Which is to say that Fieldale is not the largest poultry producer in the country, but merely number 15 or 16. Fieldale is at the top of the industry, though, in a sector called private labeling.

When a grocery store, let's say Ingles for example, wants to sell chicken under its own brand name, a private labeler processes and packages chickens to the store's specifications, creating a brand and product designed to reach a specific customer. Suppose that there's a customer base at Ingles who would pay a certain price for packs of boneless skinless chicken breasts that are advertised as "all natural" but don't cost nearly as much as going to the meat counter at Whole Foods. A private labeler can make that product a reality without a trace of a parent company — Fieldale, in this case — appearing on the package. When I asked Hensley how many private labels Fieldale manufactures, he politely declined to answer, saying, "That's not published information."

We talked about Springer Mountain, which he says came about from an obvious consumer desire for affordable chicken raised without antibiotics. This is not a light concern. There is mounting evidence that the widespread use of antibiotics in chicken farming is responsible for creating a number of so-called "superbugs." "[P]oultry — especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat — is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right," wrote Maryn McKenna in a 2012 story for The Atlantic. McKenna's work, based on years of independent studies, has drawn a link between poultry farming and drug-resistant bacteria responsible for millions of difficult-to-treat urinary tract infections each year.

FAST CASUAL: Chefs Shaun Doty (left) and Lance Gummere stand in the second location of their chicken chain, Chick-a-Biddy, which will open in July.
  • Joeff Davis
  • FAST CASUAL: Chefs Shaun Doty (left) and Lance Gummere stand in the second location of their chicken chain, Chick-a-Biddy, which will open in July.

Hensley went on to explain that Springer Mountain was a forward-thinking gamble. If Fieldale could find a cost-efficient way to raise antibiotic-free chickens, it could be way ahead of the industry if and when the government decides to increase regulations on the agricultural use of antibiotics. That could be the company's moment to really compete with the big boys. Until then, Springer Mountain would be a profitable product that a certain consumer could feel good about paying a small premium for.

Hensley sent me to a conference room to meet Gus Arrendale, the principal owner of Fieldale Farms. A 54-year-old bachelor, Arrendale wears his hair in a flowing, longish style that you might call "Richard Branson millionaire." That morning, he was wearing a loosely cut suit and a pair of sneakers with neon-green shoelaces. He speaks in a sweet Southern accent that tells you he isn't the first in his family to come from the Appalachian Mountains. We shook hands and, before I could ask him too many questions, he wanted to set some guidelines. He didn't want Fieldale mentioned in the same story as Springer Mountain Farms and he wanted to have a look at the story before it was published. "It'll confuse them," he said. By "them" he meant the consumers. I told him that journalism doesn't really work like that, but that I would definitely be in touch to fact-check the story before it ran. He didn't seem satisfied.

That's when he left me in the room to watch a short corporate film extolling the virtues of Fieldale Farms. I felt tense and assumed that I would be shown the door when the film ended. When Arrendale returned, he was in a different mood. He asked if I would return on another day for what he called, with a slow, drawling chuckle, the "Womb to Tomb" tour. No cameras allowed, he reminded me. I happily agreed to return for a thorough tour and as we were wrapping up, he asked me one more question.

"Now Wyatt, I don't like to make assumptions, but do you happen to like the Allman Brothers?"

I was a little taken aback by this turn in conversation, but my hair at the time was past my shoulders, so it probably wasn't the hardest thing for him to guess.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, Gus, I do like the Allman Brothers."

"Have you ever been to the Allman Brothers museum?"

"To be honest, sir, I didn't know there was one."

"That's because it's in my basement," he said and let out a full-on laugh. "You'll have to see that on the tour, too."

Before he sent me on my way, he gave me a copy of a hardbound book published in 2003 called A Cut Above the Rest: Tom Arrendale, Joe Hatfield, and the Story of Fieldale Farms. According to that book, a vanity publication of the company's history, the Arrendale family has been selling chicken feed and the occasional chicken in the North Georgia mountains since the Depression. In 1972, Gus's father, Tom Arrendale, and another chicken farmer named Joe Hatfield formed Fieldale from a fire sale of Purina's North Georgia poultry operations, operations their families had sold to Purina just a decade earlier. Fieldale runs a vertically integrated operation, from manufacturing its own chicken feed from trainloads of vegetarian ingredients to manufacturing "value-added" products like pre-grilled boneless, skinless chicken breasts for fast-food salads. The book also includes a section titled "Be Careful What You Say," a short anecdote about the perils of saying the wrong things to a reporter writing about the chicken industry.

On the morning of my tour, I met with a small group of the company's higher-ups in the same conference room that I had been in before. Among them was Dave Wicker, who oversees, among other things, the scientific advances that have allowed Fieldale to raise chickens without antibiotics. Dr. Dave, as he likes to be called, is white-haired with the calming manner of a family practitioner. The tricks to raising chickens without antibiotics — at least in Dr. Dave's method — are largely held in a laboratory that I was shown later that day. Behind the laboratory's glass walls, workers with all manner of Bunsen burners and glass tubes were monitoring quality levels of their chicken feed. As Dr. Dave explained, this lab is also constantly on the front lines of vaccine use in the industry. Fieldale inoculates chickens so that they don't develop the illnesses that antibiotics are otherwise used to treat in conventional farming.

OL’ BLUE EYES: Paula Deen signed on as the spokesperson for Springer Mountain Farms in 2011.
  • Joeff Davis
  • OL’ BLUE EYES: Paula Deen signed on as the spokesperson for Springer Mountain Farms in 2011.

That meet and greet didn't last very long — Arrendale didn't particularly like lingering on the subject of vaccines — before I was on the road, headed to visit one of the Springer Mountain Farms contract growers. The naïve question I'd asked Hensley over the phone about "coming down to Springer Mountain Farm" has been made obsolete by the outsourcing of the actual farming. The whole poultry industry, more or less, works with contract growers, meaning individuals with land who own chicken houses and are contracted to raise the company's chickens, which the growers never technically own. Aside from operations like White Oak Pastures, which produce a tiny fraction of chickens compared to Fieldale, this is the industry standard for raising broilers.

"House" is a euphemism. The ones I was shown were industrial gray sheds about 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. Before I could step inside, I had to put on a white hazmat-style suit that went all the way over my shoes, a precaution to help prevent viruses from being introduced to the flock. Inside, I started to understand why so much of the industry needs antibiotics. The lights inside are dim, the air is thick and dank with ureic stink, and thousands upon thousands of white chickens are huddled inside. The industry standard, what some people call "factory farming," is to pack a chicken into nearly every square foot of a house like this one. As part of its American Humane Association Certification, Springer Mountain gives its birds a little more room than the industry standard — though I never got a straight answer about how much room — so the chickens can move a little more from one acrid end of the warehouse to the other. I was told that the house had roughly 27,000 chickens in it that day. The fact that they don't have to use antibiotics to help a chicken survive these places is certainly a scientific marvel, though it doesn't happen to be a very charming one.

The good news is that chickens don't have to live in these houses very long. It takes about six weeks for Springer Mountain birds to reach six pounds. Any variation in that time — just two or three days to make weight — means a loss of profit for Fieldale. When they're ready, they're loaded into cages on a semitruck and driven to one of Fieldale's processing plants.

I arrived at one of Fieldale's processing plants in Cornelia, Ga., the "Tomb" segment of the tour, in the afternoon. I put on some earplugs, a hairnet, and a long white coat and crossed the door into the slaughterhouse. For a place that kills and guts 150,000 chickens on a slow day, the scent is surprisingly benign, smelling vaguely like a large, chlorinated pool.

The room where chickens enter is chaotic. Cages come quickly off the trucks and, with them, a stream of squawking and flapping white birds that are rapidly racked upside down by their feet on a moving track that I can only compare to a chicken roller coaster. There's a team of strong men working just on this step of the operation, grabbing and racking, grabbing and racking as fast as they can. I had wanted to watch a single bird, to follow it through the plant as I had at White Oak, but there is no time for that sort of contemplation here. There are two of these roller coaster tracks and each carries more than 100 birds a minute.

Once they're hanging upside down, the roller coaster rides the chickens into a bath of electrified water, where they're stunned senseless. From the bath, they pass limply through a device that slits their necks with a rolling, circular blade. At this point, there's a man who stands watch while holding a knife. His job is to wait for a mistake, to observe these thousands of chickens as they pass him, bleeding out, to catch a neck that doesn't pass through the blade correctly and finish the job himself. At his feet, there is a lot of blood on the killing floor.

As the plant supervisor led me through the operation, I scribbled to note each industrialized innovation. The precisely 90-second bleed time, the exactly 128-degree bath the dead birds are given before being defeathered, the hot cutter that slices off chicken feet like a knife through butter. There was a carousel-like machine where chicken bodies would enter on one side and exit eviscerated on the other, their organs neatly collected in a brightly colored tray to correspond to each individual chicken. To be honest, I had a hard time keeping track of it all. Parts of my notes simply list nouns: "PUMPS TUBES LIVERS." There are USDA inspectors standing throughout the place, their eyes fixed on the chicken roller coaster while their hands hold clipboards. There are hundreds of employees working at any given time. The Cornelia plant employs almost 1,400 people. No number, though, compares to the thousands upon thousands of chickens, flying along on the roller coaster in a very different way than one would imagine a chicken actually flying. From start to finish, the process takes about 30 minutes.

BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.

At the end, I lingered over the final step, the packaging of chicken headed for grocery stores, and my eyes glanced upon the magic that they call "private labeling." At the entrance of the processing plant, these chickens had all looked the same: big, flapping white birds. The end was a different story. In some of the packages, I noticed that light green color of "all-natural" marketing, the hue that telegraphs the spirit of words like "ANTIBIOTIC FREE" whether or not we really know what it means, enveloping packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But in other packages, I noticed that bright yellow of conventional Styrofoam carrying skin-on multi-packs of chicken thighs. It was a sinking feeling, the realization of the consumer fear that what we're buying is all the same. The strange twist, at least in the case of Fieldale's products, is that those yellow conventional containers might be slightly better than you think they are.

As promised, the tour included a stop at the Allman Brothers museum or, more accurately, Arrendale's basement. His collection is beyond impressive, crossing the line from rare tour posters and a complete discography of the band's recordings into ephemera of questionable origin, like cashed checks made out to the band. He also owns a motorcycle with the band members' faces airbrushed on the tank. He showed all of this off with the air of a successful, lifelong bachelor that feels free to be exactly as eccentric as he wants to be.

Springer Mountain was his idea and, according to the accounts in A Cut Above the Rest, it was regarded by his family as somewhat eccentric. Raising an industrial-volume of chickens without antibiotics seemed not just impractical, but also impossible to his forebears. He's the one in charge now.

Not long after that visit, I was walking through a grocery store and stopped to linger at the poultry counter. I noticed three different brands that, though they were presented side by side as different options, I could recognize all as being Fieldale birds. Standing there in the meat aisle, I realized that Springer Mountain Farms is not a farm as much as it is an idea. Instead of a physical place, it is a logo and a spokesperson and a method and a product. It is an idea that lots of people are willing to pay for.

In the end, Doty decided not to source his chickens from White Oak Pastures, Springer Mountain Farms, or any other company in Georgia. When the doors opened to the first location of his restaurant Bantam and Biddy in November 2012, chickens for the rotisserie were being delivered from a company just over the border in North Carolina called Joyce Foods. Most of Joyce's chickens fall under that vague banner called "all-natural." They're raised without antibiotics and "free to roam in barns." Joyce also raises a line of chickens called Poulet Rouge with animal welfare standards that are closer to those of White Oak Pastures. Doty told me that it didn't make financial sense to buy the Poulet Rouge chickens, but that buying the natural chickens from Joyce could be a kind of compromise.

"I'm not buying that Poulet Rouge chicken, but I support the company that raises it," he said.

Doty has caught some flack from farmers for talking up the virtues of pastured poultry without serving much of it. Brandon Chonko, who runs a pastured poultry operation in South Georgia called Grassroots Farms, has been a vocal critic of Joyce's vague "all-natural" branding.

"What bothers me about it is that little farmers like me don't cut corners, but Joyce Foods can slide in at a cheaper price without people realizing that it's not a pastured chicken," Chonko says. Doty acknowledges the criticism and says that he thinks of farmers like Chonko as something like revolutionaries, the kind of uncompromising rebels that a movement needs. For Doty, though, compromise is part of his vision.

The menu at Bantam and Biddy does carry glimmers of the future of chicken that he'd talked about months ago. There are pastured eggs in the breakfast dishes, chopped pastured chicken livers in the appetizers, some ground pastured chicken dishes, and the occasional pastured poultry special from White Oak Pastures. It's not much, but it's a start.

BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.

In July, Doty's second location, dubbed Chick-a-Biddy, will open in a shopping mall next door to locations of California Pizza Kitchen and the Cheesecake Factory. A consumer's decision to eat at either a chain that carries zero local ingredients or a place that can offer something more carefully sourced is at the heart of the fast-casual argument that Doty originally pitched to me. Simply put, it is the location that will determine whether or not his gamble has been a success.

Success, of course, is often relative. When I last visited White Oak Pastures a few weeks ago, Will proudly mentioned that his flock of chickens now numbers 60,000 and that Whole Foods has signed on to carry his chicken in a number of its stores. Around that same time, I called Hensley over at Fieldale to confirm that the company was selling about 2.8 million birds a week. He corrected me, saying, "2.9 million."

Hensley confirmed something I'd read in a poultry trade journal, that Fieldale has transitioned into an almost 100 percent antibiotic-free operation. He also confirmed that all of Fieldale's 450 contract growers are now running at Springer Mountain's standards. The line between Fieldale and the Springer Mountain gamble, which began as just 100,000 of Fieldale's chickens, now seems to have almost disappeared.

When I wrote Wall at Georgia Organics back to tell him what I'd learned about Fieldale, his reply was short and succinct: "Springer Mountain seems like a step in the right direction because they claim to avoid overdosing their birds on chemicals. That said, it's still a vertically integrated factory farm."

Most of the poultry industry would probably rather not contemplate the future of chicken, whether that means better practices or just green-washed marketing. There are plenty of profitable businesses that would benefit best from maintaining the status quo, from simply returning to the International Poultry Expo each year to find the latest machine to cut up chickens more efficiently or the latest trademarked breed to grow a little larger and a little faster. As people start spending more money on something other than conventional chicken, whatever their reasons, you can be sure that the rest of the poultry industry will be watching, paying attention, and noticing where that money is going. Put a package of White Oak Pastures next to a package of Springer Mountain Farms and most consumers wouldn't be able to tell you the difference. If they could, though, they'd tell you that each represents a very different path for the future of chicken.

A few weeks ago, I asked Doty if he remembered telling me that pastured poultry was "the future of chicken," if he still really believed that. He thought for a moment and said, "If we could get one percent of chicken, just one percent of chicken in this country to be pastured poultry, I'd call that a huge success."

He paused for another moment and then said, "We're nowhere near that, yet."

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