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The future of Big Chicken 

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

Page 10 of 10

BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIG GAMBLES: Fieldale Farms and White Oak Pastures, both family-owned, are placing very different bets on the future of the chicken industry in Georgia.

In July, Doty's second location, dubbed Chick-a-Biddy, will open in a shopping mall next door to locations of California Pizza Kitchen and the Cheesecake Factory. A consumer's decision to eat at either a chain that carries zero local ingredients or a place that can offer something more carefully sourced is at the heart of the fast-casual argument that Doty originally pitched to me. Simply put, it is the location that will determine whether or not his gamble has been a success.

Success, of course, is often relative. When I last visited White Oak Pastures a few weeks ago, Will proudly mentioned that his flock of chickens now numbers 60,000 and that Whole Foods has signed on to carry his chicken in a number of its stores. Around that same time, I called Hensley over at Fieldale to confirm that the company was selling about 2.8 million birds a week. He corrected me, saying, "2.9 million."

Hensley confirmed something I'd read in a poultry trade journal, that Fieldale has transitioned into an almost 100 percent antibiotic-free operation. He also confirmed that all of Fieldale's 450 contract growers are now running at Springer Mountain's standards. The line between Fieldale and the Springer Mountain gamble, which began as just 100,000 of Fieldale's chickens, now seems to have almost disappeared.

When I wrote Wall at Georgia Organics back to tell him what I'd learned about Fieldale, his reply was short and succinct: "Springer Mountain seems like a step in the right direction because they claim to avoid overdosing their birds on chemicals. That said, it's still a vertically integrated factory farm."

Most of the poultry industry would probably rather not contemplate the future of chicken, whether that means better practices or just green-washed marketing. There are plenty of profitable businesses that would benefit best from maintaining the status quo, from simply returning to the International Poultry Expo each year to find the latest machine to cut up chickens more efficiently or the latest trademarked breed to grow a little larger and a little faster. As people start spending more money on something other than conventional chicken, whatever their reasons, you can be sure that the rest of the poultry industry will be watching, paying attention, and noticing where that money is going. Put a package of White Oak Pastures next to a package of Springer Mountain Farms and most consumers wouldn't be able to tell you the difference. If they could, though, they'd tell you that each represents a very different path for the future of chicken.

A few weeks ago, I asked Doty if he remembered telling me that pastured poultry was "the future of chicken," if he still really believed that. He thought for a moment and said, "If we could get one percent of chicken, just one percent of chicken in this country to be pastured poultry, I'd call that a huge success."

He paused for another moment and then said, "We're nowhere near that, yet."

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