FLORIDA'S POULTRY INDUSTRY GETS LEANER; State's Chicken Processing Industry Has Been Whittled Down to a Single Player

Article excerpt

Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE, The Times-Union

As most of Florida's chicken processing plants leave for newer facilities, it's unlikely that the state will be able to find replacements, according to industry trackers.

"Florida is now a deficit, significantly deficit, producing state in meat birds," said Chuck Smith, executive vice president of the Florida Poultry Federation, a trade association. "It means we don't produce enough for our own consumption in Florida. It was a lot closer when we had the three companies that produced broilers."

With Tyson Foods Inc. closing its aging plant in Jacksonville in December 2002 and Perdue Farm making a similar decision to shutter its facility in DeFuniak Springs this year, the state's chicken processing industry has been whittled down to a single player -- Gold Kist Poultry in Live Oak.

While Tyson blamed overproduction nationwide as part of the reason to cutback more than 700 jobs and close its Jacksonville operation, Perdue said it was moving production from DeFuniak Springs to its plant in Perry, Ga.

Gold Kist's production remains significant at a weekly output of more than a million broilers, or chickens raised for meat, but the agricultural numbers already are dropping off for the commodity that was concentrated in the state's northern counties.

Between 2002 and 2003, the number of broilers produced in Florida dropped by 20 percent from 115 million to 91 million.

As the industry becomes more consolidated under a few companies, new entrants willing to start processing operations in Florida are slim, said Don Sloan, an associate professor of poultry management and nutrition at the University of Florida.

"Hopefully they would, but realistically I'm not expecting them to because it costs about $75 million or in that neighborhood to build a processing plant for all the feed mill, trucking and everything," he said.

Nationally, poultry farmers will have to look outside U.S. borders if they want to continue to expand production, said Don Dalton, president of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association in Tucker, Ga.

"We're really depending on exports," he said. "The likelihood that we're going to put any more chicken down the throat of U.S. consumers is dim."

The 79.4 pounds of chicken the average American eats in a year significantly outweighs the 19.5 pounds eaten by a person in other developed countries.

But there is another part to the chicken, and Florida has not given up on the bird altogether. …