By Molly Stassfort
Living in the South, nothing brings people together quite as much as food. Southern cuisine staples include mashed potatoes, collard greens, cornbread and maybe a pecan pie; but the centerpiece is fried chicken.
Whether you pick up your bird from the grocery store and fry it up at home - or swing through Chick-fila-A for some crispy nuggets and waffle fries - no Southern meal is complete without it.
But where does all that chicken come from? Probably from Georgia.
“Georgia is the number one poultry producing state in the nation,” said Mike Giles, President of the Georgia Poultry Federation. “We are also the number one broiler chicken producing state. Every day, there’s about 30 million pounds of poultry produced, so about 5 million chickens a day; that accounts for about 1.4 billion chickens a year.”
Founded in 1951, the Federation is a non-profit trade association that oversees and represents the political and regulatory interests of the entire poultry industry at the state and federal levels. It supports local farmers involved in the poultry industry, as well as poultry companies within the state.
According to a University of Georgia study, the poultry industry contributes over $25 billion to the state income, and the demand for chicken has increased steadily with the population. And federal statistics show that the state produced just under $4 billion in broiler value in 2016, $1 billion ahead of Alabama, the region’s next-largest producer of broilers, which are young chickens.
But Georgia and Alabama rank first and second, respectively, in the numbers of eggs set, chicks hatched, and chicks placed during the year. When combined, the two states account for more than 27 percent of the U.S. total in each category.
Those figures aren’t just chicken feed, and they reflect America’s tremendous appetite for chicken. The USDA says Americans consume 81.4 pounds of chicken annually, per capita. Chicken consumption in all the Americas has continued to climb, while beef consumption has seen a decline since the late 1970s. To meet demands nationally and internationally, Georgia sends its poultry farther than just state lines.
“Georgia poultry is sent all over – all over the world really,” said Giles. “Actually, 20 percent of nationally produced poultry is exported; that number is a little higher for the state. The port of Savannah is actually the largest chicken port in the nation.”
But most of the chickens raised in the state goes to Georgia grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, food service companies and the like.
The chicken and Haralson County
Haralson County’s poultry industry specifically contributes to this state market.
“The Haralson County poultry industry has seen substantial growth over the past three years,” said Allen Poole, chairman and CEO of the county Board of Commissioners. “We have had an influx of fundraising programs in the county that have led to farmers going into the poultry business; these programs are driven by local banks and they are providing incentives for these new growers to begin poultry farming.”
With 70% of Georgia’s poultry production territory lying above Interstate 20, Haralson is in a prime competitive spot. In the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, Haralson County’s highest quantity livestock inventory was broilers and other chickens, with over 2.7 million raised in the county. Poultry and eggs were also ranked the top in value of sales by commodity group for the county. Similarly, in that same 2012 census, chickens were the top livestock inventory in Carroll County at over 9.6 million.
“The birds raised within the county go to a selling market,” Poole said. “These particular birds range from three to five pounds each. In 2016, Haralson County had a little more than $30 million of birds sold into the poultry market. This market is comprised of three major companies, including Gold Kist. Poultry is probably the largest economy in the county next to the beef and cattle industry and timber.”
Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 102 are producing more than $1 million of poultry, as of July 2014. On an average day, Georgia produces 29.3 million pounds of chicken, 6.9 million table eggs and 5.5 million hatching eggs.
“There has been a growth trend in Haralson,” said Poole. “It’s a rural county with quite a bit of large tracts of land that are conducive for chicken houses.”
The poultry industry, of course, has its critics. There is a concern about how the animals are raised, often in close quarters. Then there is concern about the feed the animals are given, with supplements that affect the people who consume them. And there are worries about how poultry farming impacts the environment. All these concerns contribute to a sometimes negative view of the industry that farmers must combat.
David Robertson, is one such poultry farmer from Buchanan.
“A lot of people want to prove some kind of negative point about the poultry industry, and I feel it as my duty to be a promoter for the agriculture industry in Georgia.”
The biggest concern of poultry farming is avian influenza, a disease affecting chickens causing them to no longer be viable for production.
“Haralson County is a member of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, and we take pride in being proactive and staying ahead of any kind of avian flu outbreak,” says Poole. “There are classes offered on how to watch for it and prevent it.”
“Even though poultry is a large part of the county’s economy,” Poole added, “we are a diverse county; we don’t depend solely on one particular crop or animal industry. The chicken industry, however, has continued to grow. The need and demand for chicken has continued.”