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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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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.

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