By Jessica Akins and Mary Catherine Gaston
Over 200 feet tall, you can stand atop the newest and one of the most innovative feed mills in the country with the loud hum of new equipment right under your feet in rural Taliaferro County. Or, if you are not one for heights, a member of the Harrison Poultry team can show the feed mill facility from the new 1.5-mile rail loop track that can hold 130 cars at one time.
February 18, 2021, marked a new era in Harrison Poultry’s history with the new, state-of-the-art feed mill beginning full production in Crawfordville, Georgia. This feed mill does more than provide feed to the chickens in the company’s production process; it means extended life for the company and an extraordinary economic impact to rural Georgia.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done,” remarked David Sailors, feed mill manager at Harrison Poultry, as he reflects on his experience of managing the new feed mill after 25 years at the old feed mill in Winder, Georgia.
Harrison Poultry, Inc. is a family-owned, vertically integrated poultry company that is known for its “Golden Goodness.” This type of chicken, which is desired in Hispanic markets, is more flavorful due to a little more fat between the skin and the meat. The golden-yellow color of the chicken is achieved by including a feed additive derived from marigold petals and through the processing protocol. The company uses a soft scalding technique, which is about ten degrees cooler than a typical scalding temperature, leaving more of the flavorful fat.
Harrison Poultry ranks 20th in production in the country producing and processes 315 million pounds of live chicken annually. While headquarters remain in Bethlehem, Georgia, the move southeast sets it up to grow beyond current capacity and continue to make an economic impact in the future.
The team is excited about accelerating into the future with the new addition to the company’s production line. The feed mill is the catalyst for future growth to produce enough feed at an economical rate, raise more chickens, and ultimately produce more pounds of their unique, golden-hued poultry products.
“We can finally expand Bethlehem and actually talk about other facilities somewhere we can feed the chickens,” explained David Bleth, CEO and President of Harrison Poultry. “So that’s the exciting part. We can now talk about growth and actually have the ability to do it.”
The feed mill, a truck maintenance stop, and a rail loop track reside on 326 acres, with 58 of those acres cleared for the facilities. Customized to fit Harrison Poultry’s needs, the facilities reduce costs, dramatically increase efficiency by tripling production, and accommodates future expansion. Within the mill, it is equipped with innovative technology and loudly hums as it creates the finished pellets to then get fed to the chickens. While it may be a small detail, a highlight inside includes a restroom in the control room, which is uncommon in most feed mills. Additionally, the hammer mills have a reversible soft start and a variable-frequency drive (VFD) to maintain the integrity of the motors, utilize energy more efficiently, and provide more accuracy.
To put the capacity of the new feed mill in perspective, in one week, Harrison Poultry can now deliver 12,000 tons of finished feed when it is running 24 hours a day, five days a week as compared to 5,000 tons of feed per week at the Winder feed mill. Furthermore, at the new facility, they are now self-sufficient. This increase in productivity is made possible by the team's careful planning and forward-thinking embrace of innovative technology.
Creating the best feed mill possible presented a double-edged sword for those making decisions about equipment and technology for the feed mill.
“We wanted the best we could get,” said Nick Strange, corporate project manager for Harrison Poultry. “We knew what was tried and true in the industry, and we also know what hasn’t worked in other mills that we left on the drawing board and put in what we wanted.”
Simply stated, Strange identified the mill as one of the “finest facilities [he’s] ever toured.”
Prior to the new, state-of-the-art equipment and technology finding its new home in the completed feed mill, the Harrison Poultry team went through a rigorous process to choose the best land to build the facility. As you see today, rural Crawfordville, Georgia, was the premier spot. Around 90 locations were in the running, and the Harrison family played a significant role in selecting the site.
Crawfordville, Georgia, met all of the team’s criteria for several reasons. Some of these included access to a main rail line, proximity to existing and future growers, and topography of the land. Furthermore, the management team considered the economics of building the feed mill, prospective growth opportunities, and biosecurity.
“Taliaferro County was a great location because we are isolated,” described Bleth. “When we build grower or chicken houses around this area now, we don’t have a competitor’s grower or chicken houses on different vaccination schedules that can cross contaminate our chickens. We really can grow a much healthier chicken when you are in a rural area.”
While Taliaferro County offers opportunities unique to rural Georgia, the county also shares in the economic challenges common to rural places across the U.S. Therefore, challenges specific to rural areas accompanied the process of building the feed mill, too.
“Securing resources locally was a challenge,” explained Strange. As in many of Georgia’s rural places, the services and supplies needed for construction were hard to come by in sparsely populated Taliaferro County. Undeterred, the Harrison team pressed on, supporting local and utilizing local inputs whenever possible.
However, positive economic impacts have been realized outside of the feed mill since construction began in 2018. One example is the local restaurant in town.
“There is only one restaurant in town,” explained Rachel Moncrief, feed scheduling & distribution manager at Harrison Poultry and someone whose family roots in the community run deep. “It has started off having really good business, and their business has continued to stay pretty booming since [the completion of] the mill.” Moncrief began working for the company at the Winder mill, and she gladly accepted the transfer to the new mill due to its proximity to her relatives.
Furthermore, there are currently 36 employees at the mill with jobs in feed production and distribution. The selection of Crawfordville as the feed mill site will create more than 100 new jobs, and this is just the beginning of Harrison Poultry's contribution to area employment opportunities. A planned, on-site hatchery and future processing facility in the region will mean the realization of more than 1,000 jobs in the area. In addition to the jobs at the feed mill, the company supported local businesses; Georgia Wood Preservers, which is next to the feed mill in Crawfordville, was the lumber supplier for the concrete forms, Fowler Flemister Concrete in Greensboro, Georgia, supplied the concrete, and Hanson Aggregate – Sparta Quarry, Sparta, Georgia, provided the rock and gravel.
In addition to job creation, the company looks forward to contributing to the community and growing the business in Taliaferro County. Like the company's founder, Harold Harrison, Bleth embraces a servant leadership mindset that sets a powerful tone within the Harrison team. And like his predecessor, Bleth encourages each team member and the company as a whole to make a positive impact outside the walls of each Harrison Poultry facility. For example, employee contributions to United Way total around $100,000 each year, and the Harrison Foundation has funded infrastructure, such as city parks and a high school football stadium, in their communities. The company has full intentions of making same sort of impact in Crawfordville. Bleth noted the Taliaferro County leadership has been great to work with throughout the process.
Building a legacy resonates throughout the Harrison Poultry name and has for years. Since 1958, the company has focused on financial, environmental, and social sustainability, which is still evident today. The feed mill is just one part of the equation to continue the Harrison legacy for generations to come.
“He would be so proud of what you see here,” remarked Bleth. “The mill will pay for itself, and he would see the economics of the feed mill itself is worthwhile. He would also say, ‘hey, I can finally think about growing because I can feed additional chickens.’”
Harrison Poultry plans to continue growth for the next generation with the expanded operational capacity the feed mill brings to the company.
“It all starts at the feed mill, and from here, we are going to expand,” explained Bleth.
Now, growth can begin since the mill is fully functioning. The company plans to grow the Bethlehem hatchery by 21% in 2022 and another 33% in 2023. Once Bethlehem is at full capacity, construction on the new hatchery in Crawfordville can commence. Then, the expansion includes more grower or chicken houses to be built raising Harrison chickens and a new processing facility in the region. In the future expansion, Harrison Poultry is looking to add 30 more grower or chicken houses in eight counties in the area. This process has just begun and can take up to 18 months to complete a new chicken house. Also, the company looks forward to building a new processing facility in the region.
Future growth results from innovation and a willingness to “work hard in it” with your team, according to Bleth. It takes a great team to make a project of this magnitude come to life that continues the legacy, and Bleth would put his team up against any team any day to prosper.
“You know when you look around, there is no reason to go anywhere else,” said Sailors. “Even with the hard days. You look at the people you are with, and I know these people; I like these people. And, that’s why you stay at Harrison Poultry.”
In 2018, Georgia’s Rural Center completed an economic impact study to support Harrison Poultry, Inc. receiving grants and tax credits that would aid in the construction of the Taliaferro County facility. To learn more about the report, check out the economic impact study.
The Rural Center’s mission is to build healthy, vibrant rural communities with managed support and collaborative partnerships. This project focused on one of the Center’s core principles of reconnecting the people and places of rural Georgia in a manner that supports statewide economic prosperity.