Harrison Poultry, a Bethlehem, Ga. chicken processor, held a groundbreaking ceremony for its new, state-of-the-art feed mill complex in early December 2018. That achievement was the first step in a multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to greatly increase its production capacity, processing capacity and operating efficiencies. For this 60-year-old Georgia processor, the key to its upcoming transformation had to start at the mill.

Harrison Poultry was founded by R. Harold Harrison in 1958. Seven years after the company was launched, it built a feed mill in Winder, Ga. That feed mill, now 53 years old, has the capacity to produce 5,000 tons of feed per week. The new mill will produce more than three times that amount — 18,000 tons per week.

“Most poultry processors have a proprietary feed formula. That’s a key component here. When you’re hitting your limitation on feed production, it’s not very easy to go out and buy supplemental feed,” explains Wayne Tanner, Chairman of the Board for Harrison Poultry.

The mill came with other inefficiencies as well, adds David Bleth, CEO.

“It was on a single track that could only allow us to have 11 railcars of corn at any given time. The railroad would have to stop on the main line, cut out 11 cars for us, and then continue on. They charged us additional freight called single-car freight rate, which was much more expensive and not as efficient,” he explains.

The new mill, which is expected to begin operation in the summer of 2020, will be able to take an entire train of 90 or more rail cars and offload them in 15 hours.

“That’s unheard-of efficiency,” Bleth says.

In addition, the mill will have multiple lines, so in addition to producing its own feed, Harrison Poultry can experiment with new formulations, utilize the bin capacity to store those new feeds, and run trials in the field to see how they perform.

The feed mill is located in Talliaferro County (pronounced “Toliver”), which is home to approximately 1,600 residents. The company has been told by county officials that the project will make Harrison Poultry the largest employer in the history of the county.

“We are pleased to welcome Harrison Poultry to our community,” said Jackie Butts, executive director of the Taliaferro County Development Authority. “This company will provide much-needed job opportunities for us and for the region, as well.”

This feed mill project will have a ripple effect on the entire region, as Harrison Poultry prepares for even further changes. Once the feed mill is built, the company will build a hatchery. To accommodate the new, larger facilities, it will need to add 300 to 400 chicken houses. With a larger supply of chickens, the company’s Bethlehem facility in Barrow County will need to add a second shift and, eventually, a new production facility in a to-be-determined location.

An economic impact study of the project concluded that the initial capital investment will be a minimum of $161.5 million and could easily approach $200 million, with the addition of land and infrastructure. There would be at least 236 full-time employees hired with a cumulative annual payroll of more than $8 million. Barrow County, the home of its current feed mill and hatchery, will see a slight decrease in employees as those jobs are transitioned to the new location. However, as the Bethlehem facility expands its processing capacity with a second shift, there will be a net job increase in the county.

Harrison Poultry’s desire to relocate its production base reflects the changes that have taken place in Georgia over the last few decades. Its present feed mill in Winder was at one point the center of its broiler house universe, Bleth explains. As that area has become less agricultural-oriented, the broiler houses have moved much further away from Harrison’s  existing feed mill.

“We have of all chicken companies some of the longest hauling distances to get to our farms. Now, some of them are well over 100 miles round-trip to get to them and deliver feed,” he adds. “We’re trying to centralize our feed mill again and get back to being near our core group of farms.”

Harrison Poultry has a nationwide distribution and also exports internationally. The company caters to the Hispanic market and produces a yellow-skin bird that is favored by that consumer base. The plan to modernize its operations has been in the works for close to a decade, but finding a location proved difficult until the option in Talliaferro County became available. Tanner credits Bleth and his team for putting in the effort over the last two years to bring the plan to closure.

“It all comes back to the feed mill,” Tanner relates. “Obviously, the feed mill is first, and then you need to hatch and grow the chickens, so you need an improved hatchery capacity. Then once you hatch those, you have to have somewhere to put them, so you need the grower houses, and from there you have to process them.

“You can see where this takes a lot of creative thinking and planning and logistics, and it’s a multi-year process to get it to where your goal is. We have that plan in place, and we just have to execute it,” he adds.