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When chickens began to unseat cotton as king

POSTED: December 12, 2010 1:00 a.m.

North Georgia's broiler boom began in earnest after World War II and into the 1950s. It led to so many allied industries that Gainesville continues to be known as the world's broiler capital.

Decades before, however, Hall County already was known as a chicken center. It was the place where poultry was raised and traded.

As the 1940s began, farmers were beginning to be about fed up with cotton, which had been a principal cash crop for many years. The boll weevil, floods and other weather events wiped out many crops, and prices for cotton fluctuated so much farmers didn't know how much to plant or how much to rely on other crops.

Two Hall County brothers were among farmers who began to turn to mass-producing chickens for more steady and reliable income. Their efforts, while seemingly small in comparison to today's large farms with several chicken houses, were somewhat a departure from the traditional row-cropping that most farmers had relied on.

Russell and Clyde Couch had 45 acres each in the Flowery Branch area. When they bought the land in 1930, cotton was the king. However, when they could manage only three bales off 10 acres, they began to look at other options.

The Couches knew little about chickens and started with only 500. But they made money off those first few and began to learn how to care for them better, building larger houses to expand their flock.

Within a few years, they had 3,000 chickens in three houses and were able to grow them year around. They bought chicks for 8 or 9 cents each, spent $230 to $240 in feed to raise 1,000 and, when they were large enough to eat, would carry them to Atlanta in their pickup truck and sell them for 17 to 18 cents apiece.

Their profit off 1,000 chickens ranged up to $120, and they could have sold as many as 10,000 a time if they had the capacity, the brothers estimated.

Of course, there were no processing plants in Gainesville or anywhere in North Georgia at the time. The Atlanta market consisted mainly of grocers or wholesalers who dressed the chickens themselves.

Chickens added only about $600 to $1,000 to their annual income, a seemingly small amount by today's measure. But it was steady and not as subject to weather or other variables. The chicken houses they built were simple and spartan by today's standards, but the Couches were able to keep their broods warm in the winter and minimize losses to heat in the summer.

They learned early on the manure chickens produced could enrich the soil for what crops they continued to grow. For instance, with less store-bought fertilizer, they could get up to nine bales of cotton, 300 bushels of corn and ample hay and feeder crops on just 9 acres.

The switch to chickens had tripled the farms' net worth, and grew their gross income by more than five times.

Today's modern broiler houses contain up to 25,000 birds, are climate controlled, with automatic feeders and waterers, and more attention paid to sanitation. But the houses can cost $300,000-$400,000 to build. Despite technological advances, higher standards require constant attention to the flocks. Some farms raise only chickens, a few crops and perhaps a small herd of cattle on the larger places.

In the Couches' time, they would spend maybe an hour a day tending to their flocks' needs.

A pickup truck would hardly suffice to get the chickens to market today as large trucks with chickens in crates aboard haul them to one of the several processing plants around North Georgia. Then they are sold in various forms all over the country.

Growers work on contract with the poultry companies, sharing some expenses. Broilers grow to 5-6 pounds usually in six to seven weeks.

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In 1842, Hall County had seven post offices. They and their postmasters were: Gainesville, Minor W. Brown; Gailey's, Joseph Gailey; Winn's, Richard Winn; Gillsville, Joshua H. Gill; Lucksville, Francis Luck; Liberty, William Litton; and Chestnut Hill, Shumater Stowe. Luck also was tax receiver.

Chestnut Hill is today's Chestnut Mountain. Somebody along the way must have made a mountain out of a mole hill.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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