The Chattanooga area is home to more than 300 broiler growing operations, about 170 of which are affiliated with Pilgrim's Pride and 136 with Koch. Each day, Pilgrim's processes about 230,000 birds and Koch processes about 220,000.
Source: Pilgrim's Pride and Koch Foods
When Matt Tipton sees a chicken, he doesn't think eggs or drumsticks. He thinks money.
Finding work has been a struggle for the sheet metal and construction worker, but hunger is recession-proof. Since chicken is the cheapest meat, he figures it makes sense to follow in his grandfather's farming footsteps and leave behind inconsistent construction work.
"There's more of a comfort zone when you know what you're doing," he said. "Everyone's got to eat."
Tipton was one of hundreds of potential farmers who showed up to a Koch Foods open house Friday to learn more about state-of-the-art chicken houses and becoming growers for the poultry processor. Koch has operations across the country including Chattanooga and Morristown, Tenn. After acquiring competitor Cagle's Inc. in May, the company started adding 100 or more broiler houses to the tri-state area.
Koch has 136 farms in the Chattanooga region, a number that company officials hope will increase in the coming months.
"The poultry industry in Tennessee is really growing," said David Wilds, a Koch complex manager. "We've been fortunate to have a good, strong customer base."
Last year, poultry was Tennessee's largest farm product, and more broiler houses have sprung up across Tennessee all year.
Cleveland, Tenn., resident Daron Miller, who helps run his family's flooring business, hopes to continue that trend. He and his wife want to move from Cleveland into the country and get back to their family's farming roots. He plans to build four to six of the $270,000 houses, giving him the capability to raise more than a quarter million birds a year.
"It's a long-term investment," he said Friday as he inspected a house. "Success has a lot to do with your skills as a business person. It's not a set thing that you're going to do well."
After nearly 15 years in the industry, Alan Bowers told Miller that with the right management, poultry growing can be a steady income stream.
"It has its ups and downs, it's like any other business," he said. "But this has considerably fewer downs."
Unlike pork and beef, poultry tends to be more recession-proof because of its relatively low cost. Poultry growers are insulated from fluctuating fuel and feed costs, which are fronted by processors such as Koch. The company owns the birds and pays the farmers to grow them from chicks to full-size broilers, which usually takes about six weeks.
"Our pay, generally it's pretty much set," said LeBron Conley, whose five new houses were on display Friday.
Conley already owns 10 broiler houses and plans to build eight more at his new site.
He hopes his expansion will generate a good amount of income. He has a teenage son and daughter, and teenagers can be expensive. He hopes the two will take an interest in farming, and eventually take over the family business. He expects his son just might.
"Farming's not for everybody. It has to be in your blood," he said. "I think it's in his."