Originally created 08/17/99

Feathering the nest



BELLVILLE, Ga. - Joel Thompson is protective of his flock.

When visitors come to poke their heads into his 20,000-square-foot hen houses, they must first submit to Mr. Thompson's precautionary measures.

"You have to put this on," he says, an amused smile on his face and a bright-blue, paper-thin jump suit and clear plastic overshoes in his hand.

Then, wiping the sweat from beneath his camouflage hat, he opens the door into a squawking, flapping crowd of 10,000 hens and 800 roosters.

The hens are all featherless in back from weeks of breeding. They start just after their 4 a.m. feeding and go silent when the lights go out at 9 p.m. Their eggs roll from their gray metal nests onto a conveyor belt. They are then packed, stored in a cooling house and end up in a hatchery in Glennville that supplies chicks to broiler houses. The broiler houses then fatten the birds until they are slaughtered.

A cooling system, now common in chicken houses, has reduced summer heat deaths greatly at Thompson's farm to about four to 10 birds per day.

The precautions against heat and potential disease protect more than just the chickens and their 15,000-30,000 eggs per day. They protect Mr. Thompson's income in a year when his cotton and peanuts aren't bringing enough on the market to pay his bills.

"It's cash flow every month, every six weeks," he said. "You've got to have something to help back you up."

Consistent cash flow is a prospect that has farmers in Waycross excited.

Claxton Poultry, which contracts with Mr. Thompson, has announced plans for a $50 million processing plant in Waycross, a chicken hatchery in Blackshear and a feed mill in Surrency. The company will hire at least 150 farmers to supply the plant.

But environmentalists and industry representatives say farmers may not know what they're getting themselves into with contract poultry growing.

Becky Eddington, president of the Georgia Contract Poultry Growers' Association, said inexperienced poultry farmers need to know the capital investment and risks involved with contracting to grow poultry.

She knows farmers who have accumulated massive debt to build and improve broiler houses that average about $140,000 apiece. The improvements are necessary for farmers to get the best annual contract, she said.