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How a deli meat factory made SC a turkey-producing giant

December 29, 2017

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Every year, 12 million or so turkey hatchlings arrive in South Carolina, bound for hundreds of farms in the Pee Dee and the Upstate where they will be raised for months.

By one estimate, the turkeys — mostly males, known as toms — will be worth more than $400 million a year once they’ve all grown up. They’ll easily be the state’s second-largest farm product, far bigger than iconic crops like peaches, cotton or tobacco. Only chickens will contribute more to the state’s agriculture sector.

But the enormous size of the turkey industry here has little to do with the state’s farming traditions. South Carolina hardly has a long heritage as a poultry-producing state. The grains the birds eat aren’t grown here, either.

The prominence of turkeys in the Palmetto State economy owes instead to the forces of logistics plied by one of the world’s largest food producers. The emergence of South Carolina’s turkey supply chain is akin to the growth of auto parts manufacturing that followed BMW’s factory in Spartanburg and the aerospace work that followed Boeing’s arrival in North Charleston.

The kernel of the turkey industry is a household name, too: Oscar Mayer.

That’s because most of the turkey sold under the Oscar Mayer name passes through a factory in Newberry: Bologna, bacon and franks. Cold cuts with applewood, honey and mesquite flavoring.

The operation processes millions of turkeys a year, though its parent company, Kraft Heinz, won’t say how much food it produces each year. It’s one of three Oscar Mayer turkey plants in the nation, and the company said Newberry’s is the largest.

The plant, which is nearly 50 years old, is a force in the state’s agriculture sector. It buys the overwhelming majority of South Carolina’s turkeys, and it has spurred the industry’s expansion here.

In fact, Ron Prestage, who runs the state’s largest turkey company, said his firm wouldn’t be here without it. Cassatt-based Prestage Farms of South Carolina oversees 578 turkey houses in eight counties, mostly around its headquarters near Camden.

Prestage Farms, which is a major player in North Carolina’s poultry business, started raising birds in the Pee Dee in the mid-1990s at Oscar Mayer’s request. The company wanted more turkeys to be produced near its factory, and two decades later, Prestage said it accounts for 70 percent of the plant’s supply.

These days, Prestage sells 6.5 million birds a year spread out between more than 100 farmers, who raise them under contract.

Yet not a single one will be served for Thanksgiving dinner, Prestage said. Neither will the South Carolina-raised birds owned by his primary competitor, North Carolina-based Circle S Ranch, he said. Circle S didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The business of growing hens — the stars of Thanksgiving dinner — belongs to states like Minnesota and North Carolina, Arkansas and Missouri. In South Carolina, commercial production focuses on toms, male turkeys that grow too big to fit in a conventional oven.

And anyway, every bird Prestage and Circle S raise in the state is sent straight to Oscar Mayer.

The cluster of turkey farms near Oscar Mayer’s factory resembles other industry groups that have emerged in South Carolina.

BMW’s arrival in the Upstate helped develop a constellation of suppliers making parts in the Palmetto State, an ecosystem that will be bolstered by the Mercedes-Benz Vans and Volvo factories under construction near Charleston. Boeing’s plant in North Charleston is beginning to form a network of companies making pieces of planes in South Carolina.

Companies like BMW and Boeing are sought after because it takes a sophisticated supply chain to build cars and planes. Growing turkeys isn’t so different.

For Prestage’s firm, the process begins in North Carolina, where breeders use artificial insemination to fertilize hundreds of thousands of eggs each week.

Eggs are incubated near Fayetteville, N.C., and baby turkeys, which are called poults, are shipped away once they hatch a few weeks later. Males are pulled aside and sent to South Carolina.

On the farm, they live on top of wood shavings shredded at a factory Prestage Farms owns. Every day, they eat feed produced at a company-owned mill in Cassatt. Their food arrives on trucks it maintains, too. A team of veterinarians stops by at least once a week.

“You have some cluster effects like ... with Boeing or BMW, but it’s just sort of below the radar,” said Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s agriculture commissioner. “Until you get out into rural South Carolina, you just don’t quite notice it.”

The top-to-bottom business model is common in poultry production. Companies like Prestage Farms typically own the birds from when they hatch until they’re processed, even though they’re raised on independent farms.

That model — and the supply chain it requires — helps explain how the South became a dominant player in the poultry business, said Tom Vukina, an agricultural economist at North Carolina State University. It began with mills that sold feed to farmers on credit and later decided to take a more active role in the business by providing feed for free — and owning the birds outright.

The all-encompassing corporate structure would later become the backbone of the industry worldwide, and its gravitational pull helped form clusters of poultry production. The largest runs in a long belt from Arkansas to North Carolina.

The South’s prominence is “really kind of puzzling,” Vukina said: Most of the grain chickens and turkeys eat comes on rail cars from the Midwest. New England has a longer tradition of raising birds.

But the region does have lots of open space, and it’s closer to big markets on the East Coast, teeming with millions of consumers who might buy a pack of sliced turkey.

South Carolina’s turkey industry has been relatively steady since Prestage Farms set up shop in the mid-’90s. After a few years of expansion, the state’s output has been essentially flat.

The state produces 12 million birds a year, according to the most recent federal data, and it’s been holding at that level since 2008.

The lack of growth owes partly to what the state produces: Consumers’ appetite for packaged meats like sausage and bologna has cooled off over the last few years, according to the market researcher Euromonitor.

Processed poultry is no different, its research shows. After retreating the last two years, it has slimmed down to a $5.6 billion-a-year industry. But there are hopeful signs in the poultry business, Prestage said. Ground turkey has taken off recently, and exports of dark meat are growing.

That’s helped boost the dollar value of the state’s turkey output. Boyd Parr, the director of Clemson Livestock Poultry Health, said the industry is worth somewhere between $376 million and $406 million in South Carolina, depending on whose estimate you trust.

“We don’t have as many turkey processing facilities in the state,” said Weathers, the agriculture commissioner. “Were we to get that changed through our economic-development efforts, you would see substantial growth.”

And that might happen, he said.

South Carolina is in talks with another poultry processor considering opening a plant here. Weathers said the company, which he declined to name, wants to know whether the state can raise more birds, including turkeys.

If those plans materialize, he said, it would set up somewhere near Charleston, in another area without much of a history of poultry farming.

And the state would set out to build a turkey supply chain from scratch, all over again.

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