The morning after a storm, Kevin Smith holds his breath as he enters 12 pens filled with thousands of Northern bobwhite quail, making sure that his precious inventory is alive and comfortable.
“Any little thing spooks them,” Smith said. “The rain hits the tin roof and they’ll get spooked and fly 35 miles-per-hour through the houses.”
If the birds fly fast enough, they can hit a wall and die.
It’s safe to say, quail farming isn’t a walk in the park. But Smith, general manager of M&M Quail Farm in Gillsville, isn’t the average bird farmer.
Now 51 years old, Smith has been raising pheasants, ornamental peacocks and quail since high school.
M&M Quail Farm raises a total of 1 million quail a year in its three locations — Gillsville, Jefferson and Homestead, Florida.
The Gillsville farm spans over 100 acres at 4090 Campbell Road. With the help of his 12 employees, Smith sells up to 400,000 birds out of Gillsville during quail hunting season, which is from mid-October to the end of March.
In February, he picks out 16,000 females and 4,500 males among 60,000-80,000 quail to breed.
The chicks start coming in during June and they’re ready to sell in October.
If a customer orders 1,000 or more quail, they spend $3.85 per bird. Those wanting a smaller quantity pay $4 per bird.
Starting a quail farm
Before moving to Gillsville, Smith was the manager of M&M Quail Farm in Homestead. He went to work for Ed Morris, the farm’s owner, in 1990.
Tragedy struck the Homestead farm on Aug. 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit.
Smith said the hurricane wiped out 300,000 of the location’s birds.
Before the storm, each quail would go for $2.50. Smith said the price after the hurricane reached $12 a bird.
That is when another owner, who teamed up with Morris and Smith, decided to expand to Gillsville. The man came to Gillsville in 1993 and built nine quail pens on the land.
Not having experience in quail farming, Smith said the business didn’t prosper.
“It was opened and closed in six months,” Smith said. “You gotta know what you’re doing.”
The business sat for two years until Smith took over as its supervisor in 1995.
Luckily, he has the special touch when it comes to quail.
“We raised 150,000 birds in ‘95 and it grew from there,” Smith said.
Smith now has 12 employees, many of which have worked with him for 18-20 years.
Why buy quail?
Most of the people who purchase quail from Smith use them for hunting, and then eating afterward. Occasionally, he said people will buy them to put in their yards or train their hunting dogs.
This particular type of quail is native to Georgia, so Smith said it wouldn’t become an invasive species if left in the wild.
Smith sells his birds to 75 different hunting plantations around the Southeast and has other customers throughout the U.S. His farthest deliveries go to Sacramento.
The quail are hatched in Homestead, then transported to Gillsville.
Smith said 20 years ago, he would ship 60,000 quail via mail to customers. Nowadays he said he mails around 3,000 birds because the delivery workers “don’t take care of the birds like they used to. “
Because his staff has to deliver a majority of the farm’s birds, Smith and many of his employees work all day and drive all night.
Two to three deliveries can take up to 40 hours. During the farm’s busiest months from January to March, Smith gets around 1-2 hours of sleep.
“It’s a very demanding business,” Smith said. “When customers order birds, they need the bird then. You can’t tell them to wait two days because they have hunters coming in then.”
Although he works long hours and rarely gets time to vacation with his family, Smith said he still has a good 15 more years in him.
“You have to love what you do, or you won’t make it,” Smith said. “It’s an everyday job. I love farming and raising birds, that’s what I do and how I support my family.”
For more information about M&M Quail Farm call 770-538-0066.