- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

NEWVILLE, Ala. (AP) - Emma Blankenship is by most indications your typical 6-year-old girl.

She might generally prefer baking over running rampant in a field with her two brothers, 11-year-old Jaxon and 8-year-old Seth. She likes twisting the bottom ends of her dresses in her fingers, and she knows how to tilt her head just right to present a wide, glimmering smile that might get her anything she asks for.

But the one thing that might separate Emma from many girls her age today is the time she spends in play clothes and boots tending to chickens on her family’s farm in Newville. She does that working alongside her brothers, cousins and parents, Eric and Brandy Blankenship, on a farm her great-grandfather Perry “Webb” Blankenship started about 70 years ago.

Currently, Blankenship Farms is a general livestock farm with chickens, cows and hay. Mike Blankenship, Perry Blankenship’s son, said his father started the farm with row crops and at one time had hogs.

Mike Blankenship said he got his first cow 28 years ago and has since done away with the hogs.

Eric Blankenship said he added chickens about seven years ago, and that the farm completely diversified from row crops over the last three or four years.

“The main reason there are no row crops is because of the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer and chemicals and the declining cost in price of the commodity,” Eric Blankenship said.

“It was just a challenge to keep it up, so we shifted more to what we could do to diversify.”

The poultry business in Alabama is an intricate but growing multi-billion dollar industry. Alabama’s poultry and eggs farming operations ranked fourth nationally in 2012, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating broilers’ worth in the state as more than $3.6 billion in 2013.

According to the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, contract poultry farming is a more than 50-year-old industry that involves a farmer signing a contract to produce broilers, breeders or replacement pullets and commercial laying hens.

The feed for the chicks is the responsibility of the company, according to the association, while the poultry producer is expected to furnish and maintain the best possible housing, equipment and daily management in order to assure maximum performance.

Eric Blankenship said poultry farming was a large investment that did eventually pay off, though challenges are consistent with other farming issues, such as equipment breakdowns, weather conditions and other unexpected emergencies.

But he said the family effort is what keeps the farm going, especially since he broke parts of his leg while working on the farm a couple months ago. Brandy has since taken over most of the daily operations, while employing the children to pitch in and help, too.

“It’s interesting being more involved and just watching the whole growth process,” Brandy Blankenship said.

“One day you have a baby chick and then you end up with a half-grown chicken just a little while later. I’m all about it. There are some challenges, but this beats working an 8 to 5 and still gives me time to deal with my kids.”

Jaxon, who wants to be a game warden, said he loves to hunt and fish but he also enjoys helping on the farm.

Mike Blankenship smiled as he watched Jaxon and Seth join other kids run to play in a field. Two of Mike Blankenship’s older grandchildren, 13-year-old Abbi Strickland and her brother, 15-year-old Preston Strickland, had helped earlier with the chickens and hay.

“I loved this kind of stuff growing up - just always loved being on a tractor and riding in the fields,” he said.

“I’d take a hoe and make little roads and use my blocks as the vehicles. We didn’t have video games back then.”

Eric Blankenship, who is also a Henry County sheriff’s deputy and a volunteer with his father on the Echo Volunteer Fire Department, said Wayne Farms LLC’s recent announcements to expand operations in Dothan and to build a feed mill in Dale County were good signs for local poultry farmers.

“Any growth in a company is healthy because as long as a company is prospering, it gives you a sense of security,” he said.

And although Blankenship children have historically worked for the farm over the last 70 years, Brandy and Eric Blankenship said it will be their children’s decision on whether they would want to continue farming when they’re grown.

“We hope the kids take it over one day, but we also want them to do what they want to do in life,” Brandy Blankenship said.

“It will at least be here for them if they do decide to farm.”

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com

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