In Sunday's print edition of The Times look for a special section, In Praise of Poultry, with more on Hall County's No. 1 industry. We take you on a tour of a local chicken farm, meet the leaders of the Georgia Poultry Federation, and profile the pioneers and historic events that helped make Gainesville the Poultry Capital of The World.
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About three times a week, J&J Foods gets a fresh shipment of chicken products from Fieldale Farms.
Whether it bears the Fieldale label or the local grocery store chain’s own J&J label, most products on J&J’s poultry aisle come from the Baldwin-based poultry company, store vice president Randy Jordan said.
"Our philosophy has always been to try to get the freshest to offer the customer, and Fieldale definitely offers that being local, and obviously with the logistics here, it benefits us to buy from them," Jordan said.
But chickens raised and processed in North Georgia go a lot farther than the local grocery stores. Some find their way into foreign markets and others get sent to restaurants and to supermarkets across the country, in some form or fashion.
And these chickens’ fates usually are decided before they are ever taken to the incubator.
The process begins when companies like Fieldale buy day-old breeding stock, hens whose sole purpose is to lay eggs to be fertilized by roosters, from one of the few companies in the United States that sells breeders.
When those breeder hens are 20 weeks old, Fieldale sends them to one of the company’s hen growers, where they lay eggs that are fertilized by roosters and sent to one of the company’s hatcheries, said Tom Hensley, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Fieldale Farms.
In the warmth of the incubators, the eggs hatch 21 days later, and the chicks are sent to one of Fieldale’s approximately 450 farms scattered across 14 counties in Georgia and two counties in South Carolina, Hensley said.
Those farmers tend the chickens for the next 50 days before the company truck returns to take them to one of two slaughter plants in Murrayville and Cornelia, where approximately 3.2 million chickens are processed each week.
"They go from day-old to 7 weeks, and they’re ready to be harvested at 7 weeks old," Hensley said.
Within a day, the chickens are slaughtered and their parts separated and packaged for sale.
While the process of raising the chicken is nearly the same for all chicken producers, where the chicken goes next varies from company to company.
But it is likely that a good amount of chicken raised in Georgia is eaten here, too, depending on a grocery store’s distribution chain, said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council in Washington D.C.
"You have a number of major processors, obviously, right there in Georgia, and the largest amount of chicken in the country being processed in Georgia, so I should think that the vast majority of what you’ve got there is locally produced," Lobb said.
Some of Fieldale’s chickens are sent to a further processing plant in Gainesville, where they are cooked, frozen and sent to restaurant distributing companies across the country.
A large part of Fieldale’s business is to sell its chicken to stores like Ingles and Publix for private, store-brand labeling, Hensley said.
The company’s brand of organically raised chicken, Springer Mountain Farms, can be found in Kroger, Ingles and Green’s Grocery in Hall County under the Springer Mountain brand name. But the company’s presence in Hall County is small compared to the business Fieldale does across the globe.
"There’s lots of outlets for our chicken in Hall County, but as far as the percent of the 3.2 million that we sell a week, it would be pretty small," Hensley said.
And while Jordan at J&J seeks out the freshest chicken possible, local fast food restaurants also may be getting local chicken, however unintentionally, through food-service distributors that buy from local companies like Gainesville-based Mar-Jac Poultry.
Mar-Jac sells most of its chicken through wholesale distributors, said Mar-Jac Quality Control Manager Bill Wilbanks.
Much of the chicken that comes through the doors of the company’s processing plant on Aviation Boulevard ends up in boxes labeled for wholesale food distributors like Sysco and U.S. Foodservice, Mar-Jac Poultry’s marketing manager, Greg Tench. Those companies then sell the locally-raised chickens to restaurants like KFC and Zaxby’s.
For companies like Fieldale Farms and Mar-Jac Poultry, selling chicken isn’t what it used to be. Their customers are all over the world, and they have gotten pickier about what part of the chicken they want to buy.
In 1962, more than 80 percent of all chicken sold was sold whole, according to statistics from the National Chicken Council.
Today, those same statistics show that Americans like to pick what part of the chicken they are going to eat before they leave the grocery store, and when shopping for chicken, most Americans are looking for the white meat, Tench said.
A majority of the dark meat on Mar-Jac chickens is exported, with a large percentage going to Russia, Middle Eastern countries, Cuba and the Philippines, Tench said.
White, boneless breast meat is at the center of the company’s product focus, according to the Mar-Jac Web site. Nationally, 41 percent of today’s chickens are sold in multiple parts, such as breast meat or wings, and 48 percent is sold already cooked to restaurants and wholesale distributors.
But though thighs, breasts, legs and gizzards are the only parts on display at the grocery store and on the menus of local restaurants, it does not mean the other parts of the chicken are not marketable.
In the poultry business, nothing goes to waste.
After it cuts off all the most desirable parts, Mar-Jac mechanically removes the meat left on a chicken’s bones and sells it to companies such as Hormel for chicken sausage, chicken burgers and chicken hot dogs, Wilbanks said.
And the majority of the chickens’ paws are sent to China, where they are considered a delicacy, Wilbanks said.
The paws that are too small get sent to a rendering plant with the rest of the considered inedible parts of the chicken — the feathers, blood and heads —to be turned into pet food ingredients and biodiesel, said Doug Baskin, director of business development at the Cumming-based American Proteins.
"It comes in as a product that is, of course, raw, perishable; it goes out as a stable product that’s got quite a long shelf life to it," Baskin said. "... If you went into the grocery store and started looking, we’re probably in 80 percent of the dry pet food."
About 40 percent of the live weight of a chicken ends up in rendering plants like American Proteins, Baskin said. The feathers are converted into a granular form and used as an ingredient in livestock feed. The heads and the blood become ingredients in dry pet food.
The fat and oil recovered is used in biodiesel and livestock feeds, leaving hardly anything in the trash can, Baskin said.
"There are always parts that are condemned from the human food chain — we get those," Baskin said.
"We basically recycle every pound that they bring to us and keep it out of landfills, and put it back into use again. It’s actually a great recycling story, from that standpoint."