The next time you bite into a juicy chicken wing or soothe your throat with a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup, consider this – it’s very likely that chicken was raised and processed right here in Mississippi.
Headquartered in Laurel, Sanderson Farms is the third-largest poultry producer in the nation and the only Fortune 1000 company in Mississippi. The family-owned business was founded in 1947 and started as a family supply store that helped farmers obtain the highest-quality feed. Since then, it has grown into a fully integrated poultry-processing company that includes production, processing, marketing and distribution of fresh and frozen chicken.
“Utilizing the support of more than 1,000 independently contracted growers, we supply poultry products to food retailers, distributors, restaurants and food service operators in the United States and more than 50 countries,” says Hilary Burroughs, director of marketing at Sanderson Farms.
More than 500 of those growers are located in Mississippi, and one of them is Tod Waltman, who has been raising broilers, or chickens for meat, for 20 years in Copiah County.
“My dad worked in the Sanderson processing plant in Hazelhurst and my brother and I always wanted to farm after college,” Waltman says. “My dad told me that if we’re going to farm, the only way to have a steady income is to grow chickens. I have eight chicken houses now.”
For all 20 of those years, Waltman and his brother have been in partnership with Sanderson Farms, growing broilers for the company. Waltman also has a herd of about 100 cows.
“The relationship with Sanderson has been great,” Waltman says. “We always tell everyone that everything we have, we owe to these chickens.”
Waltman explains that Sanderson Farms first hatches the chickens in their hatchery in Gallman, then brings them to the farm when they’re just a day old. Waltman feeds them, waters them and raises them for approximately 63 days, until the chickens weigh about 9 ¼ pounds.
“Then they come back and take them to the processing plant,” Waltman says. “Sanderson provides the chickens, feed and technical support, and we provide the housing, water, labor and tend to them to keep everything going.”
The feed that Sanderson Farms provides its growers is a small part of the bigger role they play in making sure the birds are taken care of.
“We strive to use local grains and byproducts before using any other ingredients,” says Amy Batal, corporate nutritionist for Sanderson Farms. “The company uses all local grains and byproducts that are available, but local sources are typically only able to supply about 10% of our needs due to the amount we purchase.”
Along with quality feed, corporate veterinarian Dr. Phil Stayer says that as a company, Sanderson Farms cares deeply about the health of their birds and takes every precaution to minimize risks, from the feed ingredients to biosecurity and safety in handling the birds.
“The threats to healthy poultry production are global,” he says. “While challenging, proper biosecurity measures prevent the need for addressing disease outbreak in our flocks that can be avoided.”
He adds that healthy chickens carry less bacteria to the processing plant, which translates into food safety for consumers. And even outside the poultry houses, Sanderson Farms places importance on safety.
“We are often seen spraying our shoes each time we enter a company vehicle, even in non-poultry locations,” Stayer says. “This practice typically warrants some strange looks from people at a fuel stop or country store, but it prevents employees from picking up unwanted viruses from common gathering spots.”
To comply with Sanderson Farms’ standards, Waltman says he doesn’t allow any visitors to the farm and each time he enters and leaves, he steps in dry bleach first.
“We don’t want to have a flock of sick chickens and then send them out to the marketplace,” he says.
To keep up with the ever-evolving challenges in the industry, Sanderson Farms revisits their biosecurity program each year to make sure it is still relevant and requires training for employees and contract farmers be repeated each year as well.
On a larger scale, Sanderson Farms’ presence in Mississippi makes a tremendous impact for the state’s agriculture industry and its farmers.
“Poultry is the biggest business in Mississippi and Sanderson is a huge part of that,” Waltman says.
Poultry has actually been the top agricultural commodity in the state for the past 21 years, and Mississippi is ranked No. 5 in the nation for broiler production.
What’s more, Sanderson Farms greatly helps the state’s economy by providing a vast number of jobs. Burroughs says the company employs more than 5,000 people and provides opportunities for more than 500 family-owned farms within the state.
“We are proud to be headquartered in the state of Mississippi, as this is our home,” she says. “This is where the company first planted its roots as a family-owned feed and seed store in Laurel.”
See more: Mississippi Farmers are Resilient