The Georgia poultry
In the early twentieth century
World War II: Turning Point
World War II (1941-45) accelerated the growth
The Chicken Boom
After World War II it seemed that everyone in north Georgia was getting into the chicken business. In Hall County the number of farms that raised mainly chickens rose from 57 to 1,044 between 1939 and 1950. Poultry production soared in the 1970s and 1980s as Americans consumed less red meat and more chicken.
Many Georgia residents credit the chicken boom with turning parts of the countryside green again, since chicken manure (litter) is an excellent fertilizer. Others point to the harmful environmental impact of the industry, from fly infestation to polluted water. The potential construction of a new poultry-industry facility has caused controversy in a number of Georgia communities.
Since the poultry industry sprouted from Hall County roots in the 1930s, production has been concentrated in north Georgia. In 1997 twenty-six of the thirty-two Georgia counties that produced more than 10 million broilers each were located in the northern half of the state. The top producer, Franklin County, and neighboring Banks, Habersham, Hall, Jackson, and Madison counties produced more than a quarter of the state's total broilers. Processing plants, feed mills, and hatcheries dot north Georgia. At the same time, the poultry industry spans nearly the entire state. About three-quarters of all Georgia counties commercially produce chicken, and the 10-million-plus group includes Tattnall County, in south Georgia.
Poultry production is also moving increasingly south, where land is cheaper and more plentiful and as cooling
To convert live chickens into a saleable product, companies have employed workers in processing plants,
Conditions in some plants led to attempts at unionization. In the early 1950s a majority of workers at J. D. Jewell voted for representation by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, though violent attacks on union representatives pushed back the union drive. At Mar-Jac, in Gainesville, workers secured a union contract. Several other north Georgia plants were unionized, and truck drivers at several Gainesville feed mills signed up with the Teamsters Union.
The Contract System
Chicken growing in Georgia has changed dramatically since the 1930s. Due to improving technology, advances in poultry science, and the need for constant refinancing to modernize chicken houses, the number of growers has shrunk. In Hall County only one-sixth of the number of contract growers in 1950 produced six times as many chickens in 1997.
Whereas early agreements were often verbal, everything now revolves around a detailed written contract, applied to one flock of birds at a time. According to the Georgia Poultry Federation, the average return on investment while growers are paying off their mortgages ranges from 4.5 to 7 percent. But there is no guarantee that an integrator will continue to contract with growers. The resulting insecurity has led Georgia growers to band together to bolster their bargaining power with the integrators. North Georgia growers formed the Georgia Contract Poultry Growers Association. In south Georgia growers joined the United Poultry Growers Association.
In the 1950s Georgia companies began turning to exports to contend with overproduction and the need to sell a surplus of dark meat. They initially succeeded in Germany, but after a disastrous trade war, integrators turned to Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Later, Georgia companies began exporting to the former Soviet Union and China. By 2001 Georgia exported poultry worth more than $308 million annually, more than any other state. The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council is located in Stone Mountain.
In the 1980s Georgia's chicken processors turned to a new source of labor: migrants from Latin America. During the 1990s
From its humble barnyard beginnings the Georgia poultry industry has grown immensely. The industry directly employs more than 47,000 Georgians. Another 77,000 state residents work indirectly for the industry—at the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, pharmaceutical companies, equipment suppliers, and county agricultural extension offices.
Because of its global reach the Georgia poultry industry is intimately tied to the world economy and international politics. The Russian ban on chicken imports in March 2002 hit Georgians hard. Suspicions of ties to "international terrorism" led federal investigators to a Gainesville poultry plant. In 2001, in an attempted unionization bid, nearly a quarter of the largely immigrant Guatemalan production workers at Gold Kist in Ellijay voted for a union. Whether these events represent a foretaste of future trends or are only incidental growing pains remains to be seen.
David Griffith, "Hay Trabajo: Poultry Processing, Rural Industrialization, and the Latinization of Low-Wage Labor," in Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America, ed. Donald D. Stull, Michael J. Broadway, and David Griffith (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 129-51.
Greig Guthey, "Mexican Places in Southern Spaces: Globalization, Work, and Daily Life in and around the North Georgia Poultry Industry," in Latino Workers in the Contemporary South, ed. Arthur D. Murphy, Colleen Blanchard, and Jennifer A. Hill (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 57-67.
Gordon Sawyer, The Agribusiness Poultry Industry: A History of Its Development (New York: Exposition Press, 1971).
Brian S. Wills, "D. W. Brooks: Gold Kist's Goodwill Ambassador," Georgia Historical Quarterly 74 (fall 1990): 487-502.
Carl Weinberg, North Georgia College and State University
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