- Associated Press - Sunday, September 7, 2014

CALLANDS, Va. (AP) - About 13 years ago, Robert Mills was working as a conservation specialist, in addition to maintaining his Pittsylvania County tobacco and cattle farm, when a representative from the Perdue poultry company appeared at his office.

“He said, ‘We’re looking for Robert Mills,’ ” Mills recalls now with a smile. “I said, ‘It depends on what you want.’”

The man slid a piece of paper across his desk, explaining the arrangement Perdue was offering, one in which Mills would build a large chicken house on his farm and then be paid to raise chickens provided and eventually taken by the company.

“I saw a ticket home, that’s what I saw,” Mills said. “It was enough income where I could come home.”

He quit his job on Oct. 12, 2001, and has been a full-time farmer ever since, fulfilling a dream he developed growing up in a Danville subdivision.

As the agriculture industry evolves, leaders in Southside Virginia have begun to believe that the route Mills took could offer a path to viability for a younger generation of farmers, providing steady income to offset the risks inherent in other common crops and livestock, like tobacco and beef.

This summer, Franklin and Bedford counties have loosened restrictions on the construction of chicken houses, in hopes of streamlining any poultry industry advances into the region.

David Cundiff, the chairman of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors and a longtime farmer, said interest in large-scale chicken farming first took hold in the 1990s, as the federal government’s tobacco quotas were cut and eventually eliminated. It has been renewed in recent months, at least in part by a regional effort involving the Governor’s Opportunity Fund, to lure an integrator - a centralized poultry industry facility - to the Danville area.

“Now that this interest has come back forward again, I wanted Franklin County to be in position,” Cundiff said.

The changes in Franklin County, approved by the supervisors during their July meeting, allow farmers in agricultural zoning districts to build chicken houses by right, as long as they meet certain criteria, whereas under the old ordinance they had to apply for a special-use permit.

Cundiff speculated that the relatively lengthy process of gaining permission to build a chicken house may have deterred poultry companies from approaching Franklin County residents in the past. Pittsylvania County, where Mills has been in business for more than a decade, does not require such a process.

Farmers who wish to build chicken houses that don’t meet the revised requirements - which mostly require the facilities to be more than 1,000 feet from residential developments and other infrastructure - can still go through the special-use permit process, county planning director Neil Holthouser pointed out.

“The advantage, we think, of our ordinance, is that we can still consider chicken houses on a case-by-case basis even if those criteria are not met,” Holthouser said.

Bedford’s amended ordinance took action to revise “setback” restrictions that limited the possibilities of building a chicken house for some farmers.

Holthouser said Franklin County officials are increasingly seeing a desire among farmers to diminish their dependence on any one product - as farms too grounded in any one crop can become economically untenable with a single drought or flood.

“Farmers are looking to diversify,” he said. “Farmers are looking for multiple sources of income. They don’t want to put all of their eggs in one basket.”

Most operations on a farm are constantly dealing with risk, involving factors as unpredictable as the weather. And other times, the expenses of their daily lives can change in a time when they have no financial recourse.

“When I finish selling tobacco, I’m in great shape,” Mills said. “But I’ve got to live on that for the rest of the year. With the weekly poultry income, I can keep the lights on, buy groceries.”

The bulk of the risk in starting a chicken house operation is in the initial overhead cost. Cundiff said they currently cost at least $300,000 to construct, and potentially up to $600,000. Farmers front that cost, and then sign contracts to raise birds for a poultry company.

From that point forward, the farmer is simply responsible for the upkeep of his house and the well-being of the birds, a daily workload that Mills said usually takes up no more than an hour. The income is typically steady, with the poultry company providing the birds and most supplies. That makes the regional effort to attract an integrator facility particularly important, as it would serve as a central distribution site for feed and young birds, immediately creating more demand for nearby chicken houses.

“Odds are if an integrator moved to Pittsylvania County, you’re going to have houses in Franklin County,” Mills said in explaining why neighboring counties have made the changes.

A Chinese ban on Virginia poultry, originally enacted after a brief outbreak of disease in 2007, was lifted in May, and could provide another boost to demand.

Concerns about the changes have mainly focused on the effects of chicken houses on surrounding properties. But Mills, a member of the Virginia Farm Bureau’s state board of directors, said the activities of a chicken farm are barely noticeable.

The birds arrive twice a year, 1,700 tiny chicks delivered in a single van-style truck. They are carried into the 20,000-square-foot chicken house on his farm, shrouded from the surrounding tobacco fields and cattle grazing areas. It’s fenced in to comply with industry standards for biosecurity, and the computerized controls of the building are calibrated to meet the needs of the chickens as they grow inside, for 22 weeks.

On the prescribed date, the poultry company comes to retrieve its birds, with considerably more horsepower.

“Other than twice a year, when five tractor-trailers are hauling chickens out of here, you would never know I was in business,” Mills said.

Cundiff and Holthouser, among other local leaders, are hoping the relaxed restrictions entice poultry companies to contract with local farmers facing the same dilemma Mills dealt with 13 years ago. And for younger farmers, the hope is that poultry can provide often elusive stability.

“A poultry house,” Mills said, “could be the difference between a young person being able to farm full time or not.”


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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