Outstanding chicken growers: 2019

These 12 farm families were recognized as outstanding chicken growers at Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.’s 63rd annual Booster Banquet on Tuesday, April 16, 2019.

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DPI also recognized four people with other awards at the Booster Banquet.

Tim and Kim Austin, who raise chickens for Mountaire Farms, became farmers 12 years ago when they bought a farm Tim Austin – a truck driver then – had his eye on. Kim Austin operated a home day care, and she continues to care for children in a sunny day room across a field from their farm while she and her husband raise flocks of 98,800 birds in four chicken houses. “Knowing where my food’s coming from is really important. We’re providing a safe product for the community,” Kim Austin says. “And I just like living here, where I can ride my four-wheeler and not be bothered.”
Tim Austin says he appreciates the pace of life on the farm, as a contrast to the 25 years he spent behind the wheel on trucking routes. “I’m more or less my own boss now. Every day is different with the birds; you almost feel like a Dr. Doolittle,” he says. “The birds will tell you what to do.”
Both Austins say they work hard to make the farm successful, and they are proud of the dense vegetative buffers – tall, protective evergreens – that encircle it. Tim Austin does an exterior check of each house each morning, seven days a week, before heading inside for the first of several daily walkthroughs in each house, including a final visit to the chickens just before he heads to bed. They faced a setback in 2010, when heavy snows collapsed a chicken house roof, but they rebuilt and carried on. “I want people to know the care each farmer takes in a flock,” Kim Austin said. “This is not a factory farm.”
 
Gary and Crystal Conaway look back to 1983, when they built their first chicken houses across from their house, to recall their first flock of chickens as independent growers. Today, they care for 100,000 chickens at a time across five chicken houses for Mountaire Farms. “It fits right in with growing corn and soybeans. It’s a good fit, and it’s been good to us,” Gary Conaway says. One of them is usually tending to chickens by 5:30 a.m. each day, or even earlier, if there’s work to be done on their farm fields as well. “And there’s a lot of nights we sit here and eat dinner at 10 p.m.,” Gary Conaway notes. But they don’t let the long hours be an excuse to let weeds grow; both the farm and their house are tidily maintained. “A lot of people say how nice we keep it. We do get a lot of comments on that,” he says. “We take pride in it.”
The Conaways’ two sons, now grown, helped on the farm when they were in school, with chores to do before the bell rang. “You can get involved in school activities and carpooling and all that, in between working in the chicken house. It does give you a lot of time for the kids,” Crystal Conaway said of the chicken business. “I don’t think this job is for everyone, but it works well if you want to stay home and raise your family.”
 
Dasrat Deonarine first visited Delaware as an accountant on vacation. Living in New York, he and his wife felt the appeal of a quieter place in which to raise their children, and relatives suggested raising chickens might suit his personality and work ethic. So, 17 years ago, the family moved south and built the first of four chicken houses. He now raises 87,000 roasters for Perdue Farms. “You spend the whole day doing what you like and being outdoors,” Deonarine says of farming. “Not too much like a corporation.” Chickens, he notes, don’t pen memos.
Recalling his first flock, he admits to being scared of the task before him, but he’s succeeded and thrived. “Go into my chicken houses and you will see everything is in tip-top shape,” he says. “I’m a morning person. I get up at 5 a.m. and come in at 5:30, start running my chickens, and I normally finish around 9… I try to do the best I can. There’s no secret – it’s just being in the chicken houses, knowing what the bird wants. Basically, it’s a 24/7 job. If I’m at home and there’s an alarm, you have to come out here. Even if it’s like 2 a.m. you have to be here.”
His college-age children help on the farm when they’re home, and his wife pitches in part-time. “It’s a family business,” Deonarine says. “The income is good, I have my own time, and I’m proud of the chicken houses. I’m proud when people come out here and see.”
 
Ryan and Laura Greer raise organic chicken for Coleman Organic, operating three chicken houses tucked behind a tall hedgerow on land in New Castle County, Delaware. “I was looking for a way to come home, to be home and work on the farm, and chickens was that answer for us,” Ryan Greer says. “My house is right at the end of the lane, and I grew up across the street in my parents’ house.” His two-year-old daughter, he says, “wants nothing more than to be in the chicken houses.” As an organic operation, Greer’s flocks of 108,000 chickens have pasture access and enrichments – ramps and cubbies – in their habitat.
The farm has been in operation for three years. Greer attributes his success as a grower to attention to detail and long hours. “I try to be in the houses as much as possible, pay attention to everything, and make sure everything is actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he says. “Mainly it’s just being with the birds. I feel the more I’m in the houses, the better I do. It is a job you never walk away from. It’s with you the whole time.”
 
“I left the farm when I was 20 to drive a truck,” Tracey Hill says. “But my passion has always been the farm. When my mother was getting ready to retire, I came back.” Hill remembers helping his parents raise chickens in the 1970s, and since 2003, he’s operated the family’s sprawling farm, raising 130,000 birds in a flock in five houses for Mountaire Farms. The farm also includes a substantial grain operation. Hill works closely with a farm manager, Carlos Gonzalez, and Hill’s son also contributes. “I think that’s what gives us success, the teamwork. And, also, putting chickens number one on our list, making sure that’s our priority job,” Hill says. “Everything else is second after chickens. We don’t put anything off. If it needs to be fixed, we fix it then. That’s the mindset around here.”
Asked what he wishes more people knew about the chicken business, Hill says: “How much we care about them. That’s our livelihood, treating them the best we can treat them from start to finish. As an industry, we’re doing a good job, I think. The industry is still growing, and we need it to grow.”
 
Brian Kunkowski takes a studious, rigorous approach to how he runs his four-house chicken farm, which houses 128,000 birds at a time for Amick Farms. Each day, in turn, he checks ventilation, feed presentation, the watering system, and controller measurements in his houses. Just before going to bed, he checks his computer controllers, but he says he learns the most about his birds from long hours spent in the chicken houses with them. “The chicken will tell you what it needs and what it wants – whether it’s comfortable or not. To walk in the house, stand still and watch what the chickens are doing, and they will tell whether they’re happy,” Kunkowski says.
A farmhand, Fred Thiess Jr., plays an essential role on the farm, which Kunkowski and his wife, Kathy, built in 2015. “We put a lot of attention into how we manage our litter. We’re very conscientious about the way we treat our chickens as they’re growing, and keep them comfortable, letting them dictate to us what they want,” Kunkowski says. “It’s a constant challenge, constant mental gymnastics as to what you need to do with each flock and how you raise them.” His chicken farm, Kunkowski says, is a small but essential part of America’s food supply. “One of the things that surprises me is how many people think their chicken just comes from the grocery store,” he says. “You’re not going to be able to go to McDonald’s and get a chicken nugget if we’re not here growing these chickens.”
Even for a chicken grower, Kunkowski stays busy, operating a skydiving business and, as a hobby, competing in drag races (Kathy races, too).
 
Kimberly Lang worked in Tyson’s Accomack County, Virginia processing plant for 21 years before becoming a chicken grower, contracting with Tyson. “We got into it as a retirement fund,” Lang says. “I take care of my grandkids and I have somebody who works the chicken houses during the day through the week. We do them on the weekends.” She operates two chicken houses, caring for flocks of 50,000 birds.
A grower’s challenge, Lang says, is managing conditions in the house. Dry litter, air with the ammonia level under control, sufficient heat, food and water – it’s all a balancing act. “There is no time off,” Lang says. “If there’s a problem at 2 in the morning, you’ve got to go fix that problem; they have to have good air 24 hours a day.” When her birds are in, she tries not to venture more than 20 minutes away from her farm, for any reason.
Asked what she wishes more people knew about raising chickens, she points to misunderstandings about stormwater ponds, features that are now standard on new farms. “People who see these new farms with large ponds think those ponds are for runoff from the chicken houses, other than trying to keep water from going into the chicken houses in the first place,” Lang said.
 
Ronnie and Tammy Massey have raised chickens for 21 years, and now operate two houses with a flock size of 50,000 birds under contract with Amick Farms. “It’s always been in my husband’s family” to farm, Tammy Massey notes. “I decided that would be a great thing to do when I had a toddler. I was able to stay home, still have income, and not miss my baby growing up. I’ve enjoyed it. You kind of set your own schedule, but you’re also on the chicken’s schedule; I like that.” Conscientious about animal welfare, one or both of the Masseys walk the houses – which are just across the street from their home – three or four times each day without fail. “The best thing is being hands-on, being in the house, looking at the chickens and their comfort level,” Tammy Massey says. “You can tell just by looking at them. They can give you all the charts they want, but the chickens tell you what they need.”
She wishes more people outside the chicken community appreciated how much farmers care about their flocks’ welfare. “These chickens have a good life,” she says. “Most people just don’t realize that chickens are treated real good.”
 
In raising chickens, Larry Sterling carries on a way of life he learned from his late father. The farm has been in his family since 1995, and he raises 162,000 birds in a flock for Mountaire Farms, spread across six chicken houses. “The first two houses we built when I was 12 years old,” Sterling remembers. “I used to look forward to it, getting off the bus and working in the houses. I thought it was fun.” His brother and his mother pitch in with farm tasks, and a part-time farmhand does as well.
Sterling is at the farm gate by 6:30 each morning, and his last walkthrough of the day usually comes at 9 at night. “It starts the day chickens are placed and it never ends until the day they go out,” Sterling says of a chicken grower’s work. “I don’t really do anything special, but I just do what you’re supposed to do. If you work hard, it pays off.” Over the weeks a flock is in his care, Sterling values the opportunity to see chickens grow and mature.
“I was born here, and I hope I’ll live here the rest of my life,” Sterling says. “Everybody’s in this for the same thing – to feed the world.”
 
Jonathan Tran and his wife, Muoi, were operating a fast-food restaurant in Los Angeles and were burning out. The hours were very long, customer service was an unpredictable challenge, staying ahead of competitors on price was a constant battle, and the city’s traffic and everyday urgency were stressful to manage. When friends of theirs who raised chickens on Delmarva suggested the Trans consider a coast-to-coast move and a very different career, they were more than willing to give it a try. Now, 10 years after moving to Delmarva, they operate a four-house farm that raises 128,000 birds at a time for Perdue Farms.
“We really like it. We don’t have to deal with customers. Here, we deal with chickens – no complaints!” Jonathan laughs. “But we do a good job, too. We learn something every day we’re working. My goal is, every flock, we have to be better.”