Every year is a gamble for farmers, as lifelong farmer Chad Mitchell can attest.
“You never know what you’re gonna get, like a box of chocolates,” Mitchell said. “I just happened to get lucky last year.”
Mitchell and his wife, Tami, played their cards well and were named Outstanding Poultry Producers of the Year, one of 12 farms honored by Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
Mitchell has always lived on his family’s farm, just outside Frankford town limits, but he didn’t actually build chicken houses there until 1996. In 2010, after nearly 15 years, he paid off the building costs and retired from his 30-year career at the Department of Corrections to focus on farming.
“I love it,” Mitchell said. “I love physical work. I do.”
Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. is the nonprofit trade association working for the continued progress of the Delmarva meat chicken industry (chickens produced for meat, not eggs). Each year, DPI invites major Delmarva poultry companies to select winners based on production, getting birds to the desired weight for the least cost, environmental stewardship, cooperation with companies, farm appearance and overall attitudes.
“When you are one of 1,500 potential recipients, it’s an honor. The farmers are proud of their operations, and they do a good job,” said Bill Satterfield, DPI executive director, who visited each farm. “Some were real new houses, some were old houses, but all were good houses, good growers.”
Mitchell began as a grower for Townsend’s and continued that when Mountaire took over Townsend’s Millsboro operations in 2000. Mountaire’s Dean Stewart estimated that 350 growers supply the Millsboro plant and a similar number supply the Selbyville plant.
“We normally look at our very best performers in the company. They would be among our very top ones … very impressive,” Stewart said. “I think Chad was good before, and now he’s even better.”
Mitchell raises 44,000 chickens at a time. They arrive on one busload as newly hatched chicks, or “biddies.” He provides the housing and upkeep, while Mountaire supplies the chickens, feed and medication. After 60 days, 12 tractor-trailers pick up the mature 8.5- to 9-pound chickens for market.
He aims to produce the most amount of meat for the least cost. Luck determines the quality of chickens he receives, but “management” is key. So Mitchell maintains his equipment, avoids feed spills and keeps good air quality in the two chicken houses.
“It would be a lot if I had to do it all,” Mitchell said, but his wife, Tami, manages finances and manages the farm when he’s away.
Mitchell must also keep the waste contained. He installed heavy-use pads on the end of the chicken houses — concrete patios that make it easier to sweep up poultry waste. A line of trees border the property to catch dusty particles caught on the wind.
“I try to keep it inside [the chicken houses] as much as possible,” Mitchell said.
He also tills around 100 acres for corn, soy and wheat, having increased the size of the farm since his parents purchased it in 1947.
“It’s in my blood,” Mitchell said, and — despite hoping that a hurricane or dry spell won’t sweep away all the money he sowed five months earlier — “It just makes you feel good to put in a good long day.”
Of course, Mitchell loves fried chicken — especially his own family’s recipe — which includes old-fashioned hog lard (which he butchers himself).
The Outstand Poultry Producer Award was Mitchell’s first poultry award.
“I’m happy that I won it. It’s an honor,” he said. So what is his future goal? “Just live life to the fullest. Fish as much as I can."