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These parts of North Georgia's poultry industry growing despite pandemic
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Cantrell-Gainco employee Jesus Rider works Tuesday, March 2, 2021, inside the company's new plant on Monroe Drive. The Gainesville company makes and sells poultry processing equipment. - photo by Scott Rogers

Some poultry businesses have expanded in the past year, including Soulshine Farms and Cantrell-Gainco.

Michael Farmer acknowledges the pandemic’s toll on the poultry industry, but that hasn’t changed his growth plans for Gainesville- based Soulshine Farms.

Especially with spring coming.

“That’s usually when the chicken business picks up, and we’re starting to see that,” said Farmer, partner with Soulshine Farms at 2411 White Sulphur Road.

The company got approval last year from Hall County to move into a larger building at 2118 Centennial Drive, off Memorial Park Drive near Gainesville.

“We have turned some business away because we don’t have room at White Sulphur, and we are getting a lot of phone calls about new business,” Farmer said. “We’re quoting a lot of business, and there’s a lot of opportunities out there.

The new building is about 74,000 square feet, compared to 12,000-15,000 square feet at the current plant.

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Soulshine Farms plant is moving into a facility at 2118 Centennial Drive in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

The move from egg processing to poultry processing “will give us room to grow for the future, as well,” Farmer said.

Also, he expects to increase the payroll as the company moves into the new building, which he hopes can take place in April.

Soulshine now employs about 280. Farmer expects that number to rise to 400- 500 this year.

“We’ll have potential to get even higher than that going into next year,” he said.

Cantrell-Gainco opened a 136,000-squarefoot building at 2579 Monroe Drive in November, to put all its operations — including design, manufacturing and administrative offices — under one roof.

In addition to making equipment for the poultry industry, it also sells equipment made elsewhere, such as an X-ray machine that detects high-density foreign materials, like plastics.

“This was an important opportunity to consolidate our operations from several facilities at a single location, driven by the

need to support continued growth, including our global expansion into Europe and Latin America,” said Thomas Holm, Cantrell-Gainco Group president, in a November press release.

Overall, the poultry industry in Hall “is still stable,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not necessarily growing, but it’s definitely a traditional industry for the area.”

“What’s grown for us,” he added, “has been the spinoff industries — food processing equipment, companies that manufacture the poultry processing equipment.”

He mentioned a few local companies, including National X-Ray in Flowery Branch and Marel and Cantrell-Gainco in Gainesville.

Corporate and company growth prompted Wayne Farms to consider either moving their headquarters to another location in Hall County or expanding/upgrading at the current location at 4110 Continental Drive in Oakwood, spokesman Frank Singleton said.a

The company decided to stay put and is now finishing up a 5,000-square-foot expansion that will increase the size of the building to 50,000 square feet.

“This project was all about making the work environment for team members more comfortable/ ergonomically friendly,” Singleton said. “This remodel and addition is the first since the building was constructed 20-plus years ago.”

The industry has been reeling from coronavirus impacts, too, though.

Tom Hensley, longtime president of Cornelia-based Fieldale Farms, said, “We’re just trying to hold on to what we got this year.”

“We have about the same number of chickens as last year,” he said. “Our retail demand has been extraordinary, but our restaurant demand has softened. Fast-food restaurants have come back quite well, while white-tablecloth restaurants are suffering.”

The pandemic has especially hurt employment, Hensley said.

“It’s very difficult to find people to come to work. Unemployment benefits are very lucrative,” he said in reference to the $600 weekly federal benefit on top of state benefits in 2020. “People can earn a lot of money staying home, and they do.”Hensley added: “That’s making it difficult for us to get products out the door, but we’re doing it every week and successfully. I am looking for greener pastures. I think the worst of (the pandemic) is behind us.”

One of the company’s last significant expansions took place in 2017 at the Murrayville plant, where new facilities, including a new break room and cafeteria for employees, were added. The expansion also added about 100 employees.

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