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Growers flocking to new chicken company in Va.
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
HARRISONBURG, Va. (Nov. 24, 2015) — Corwin Heatwole wanted a little more autonomy when it came to choosing the feed and selling price for the chickens he and his family had long grown as contractors for a national brand in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
So the 32-year-old made an investment and started raising and selling his own birds. What started with 300 chicks quickly ballooned to 3,000 chickens and an idea that he could get more farmers to join the venture.
Shenandoah Valley Organics, which sells organic and antibiotic-free chickens, opened its own processing facility in March of 2014 to exponential growth over the past year. The processor now has a waiting list of 150 poultry growers who want to make the switch.
“They want to grow for us, because they’ve heard of our friendly business model and that they can make more money,” said Mike Wilson, vice president of sales. “We bring on as many farms as we have the business for.”
The processor, which buys chickens from farmers looking for an alternative to the contract growing model, moved into a vacant Pilgrim’s Pride turkey plant in Harrisonburg, adding 250 new processing jobs for this rural swath of Rockingham County that has a long history in the poultry business.
At the time, the company purchased and sold only USDA-Certified Organic chickens, but it has since added a line of antibiotic-free birds as well. The antibiotic-free line now comprises 60 percent of the company’s business, said Wilson, as more customers follow in the footsteps of national brands like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A that have committed to sourcing only antibiotic-free chickens in the future.
SV Organics started out selling chicken to processors that made organic products for brands like Applegate Farms. In recent months, the company has expanded its sales to include several restaurant accounts in and around Washington, D.C., where local, ABF and organic chickens are in high demand.
Wilson said the national chain Elevation Burger is now selling his chicken and D.C.’s Clyde’s Restaurant Group is considering sourcing from the brand. SV Organic also recently launched a retail line under the Red Wheelbarrow brand (Perdue owns the term “Shenandoah Valley” in the retail market) that is for sale at MOM’s Organic Markets and some Giant stores so far.
“Our phone rings off the hook with customers calling,” said Wilson.
Farmers also seem to want to get on board. Many can make the switch from conventional to growing antibiotic-free chickens almost overnight, Wilson said. Growing Certified Organic chickens requires a farm to be certified and to have not used certain inputs like pesticides for three years. The SV Organic birds are also certified “humanely raised” and have more living space and “enrichments” like a beach ball to play with in the chicken houses.
Instead of using antibiotics to prevent disease among the birds, growers leave the houses empty for three weeks in between flocks and feed them probiotics to foster healthy gut bacteria.
Instead of being contracted as growers, SV Organic farmers take out loans (usually between $60,000 and $400,000) to purchase their own flocks from hatcheries in Pennsylvania’s Amish country for growing to sale size. SV Organic suggests where growers can buy the birds and the feed and commits to purchasing them by the pound.
“The farmer-driven approach also really resonates with restaurateurs and customers,” he said.