Mark Higginson is bigger than life, and quotes numbers that prove it. “I raise over six million pounds of chicken a year. I’ve got seven chicken houses, 16,000 square feet each. Each house has 21,000 chickens. I grow six crops a year, and have a week or two off in between. My chickens are the roasters you find at Wal-Mart, Sam’s and Costco.”
Mark has been a contract farmer for Tyson for 33 years. During that time, the gist of the business has not changed. Tyson delivers baby chicks at the beginning of each growing period. They provide the food and vaccines for each bird. They visit weekly to monitor their progress. After seven to eight weeks, they take the full-grown birds away. Mark gets paid for each full-grown chick he delivers, and works to keep his cull rate below four percent.
The biggest change in 33 years is monitoring. Each chicken house is regulated for temperature and humidity. Mark also gets an alarm notification if water dispensers or food troughs clog. “They live better than your average house pet,” Mark shows me the airy buildings where the chickens roam at will. The place doesn’t even smell: a fertilizer company cleans out each house on a regular basis in exchange for the chicken dung they use to make 16-16-16 fertilizer.
Although Mark served me steak for dinner the night I stayed with him, he knows chicken is king. “Americans eat 72 pounds of chicken a year, to 68 pounds of beef. That’s only going to grow. Doctors tell adults to lay off the fat; kids like their chicken fingers. It takes five pounds of feed to make a pound of beef. It only takes two pounds of chicken feed. Beef can never catch up.”
There are 150 chicken raising farms in this area that supply the Blountville processing plant. Mark’s is among the largest, and longest established. His 70-acre farm is a $6 million investment that yields him a good life. The farm has four houses, one for his mother and two to rent. He also leases 50 acres for grazing. Mark and his girlfriend Julie often travel during the break between shipments. But when the chickens roost, Mark works every day with the help of a small crew during the week.
I asked Mark why Tyson does not fold chicken growing into their operation. “If they did it, they would need three shift crews. I can do it with one. It’s win-win. They don’t have all that staff, I get to live on the land and grow animals.”
Mark believes in this system, which has provided for him well and feeds so many. “I’m not pulling a nuclear trigger. I’m not polluting the air. I’m growing food for people. One man; six million pounds a year. The American farmer is the most efficient on earth.”
How will we live tomorrow?