When many think of Arkansas agriculture, they think of prolific staple row crops like corn, soybeans and rice. However, poultry is the agricultural heavyweight here.
By far Arkansas’s largest ag sector, poultry – including chickens, eggs and turkeys – accounts for 46.5 percent of Arkansas’s total ag cash receipts, adding an economic impact of more than $35 billion and supporting 120,000 jobs.
Broiler production, or raising chickens for meat, leads the industry with local growers producing 6.16 billion pounds annually, ranking the state No. 3 in the nation. In addition, Arkansas produces more than 3.2 billion eggs and 561 million pounds of turkey each year. This thriving industry is helping feed not only Arkansans, but also the nation and people around the world.
“You would have to add the cash receipts from all of the row crops to get the equivalent of poultry,” says Marvin Childers, president of the Poultry Federation of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Even as a grain crop giant, Arkansas can’t provide enough feed for its own birds – that’s how large the poultry industry is.
“In 2014, Arkansas produced about 105 million bushels of corn, and poultry needs about 155 million bushels just to feed chickens, turkeys and laying hens. We’re 50 million bushels short if we could use every bushel grown in Arkansas,” Childers says.
A Boon For Arkansas
First emerging in the state in the late 1800s, Arkansas farmers took up poultry farming in the western part of the state, which has mountainous terrain and is not suitable for growing row crops that flourish in the rich soils and flat lands in the east.
“You could almost divide the state in half, with the western half raising poultry and livestock and the eastern half growing row crops,” Childers says.
The industry really started taking off during the Great Depression – it was unaffected by the drought and dust storms driven by the Dust Bowl, which destroyed surrounding areas. During the Depression, Tyson Foods was founded in Springdale.
Over the years, poultry became a boon for both Arkansas and the nation, with many poultry companies, such as Tyson Foods, Simmons Foods, George’s Inc., OK Foods, Butterball, Cargill and Keith Smith Co., setting up shop in the state. Today, Tyson is one of largest agribusinesses in the U.S., as well as one of the foremost leaders in poultry production.
Arkansas poultry is a success not only on the home front, but also overseas, and it’s steadily growing into a major international player.
In 2013, Arkansas’s third leading ag export was broiler meat, earning $646 million. As a growing world population demands more of this affordable protein, Arkansas’s producers are helping combat hunger in existing and new markets.
Family-owned poultry company Keith Smith Co. (KSC), based in Hot Springs, is quickly growing as a heavy hitter in the poultry export market. Established nearly 70 years ago, KSC is considered a national leader in supplying hatching eggs to broiler producers.
Broiler hatching eggs refer to fertilized eggs produced and sent to hatcheries to be raised as broilers. They are not sold in stores or eaten (eggs that are eaten and found in the grocery store are known as table eggs or shell eggs).
Wayne Freeman, KSC’s chief operating officer who has been with the company for more than two decades, has seen the industry grow in leaps and bounds. Freeman supervises production, nutrition, customer service, dedicated contract services and transportation services.
“We have seen Arkansas’s poultry industry grow a lot internationally,” Freeman says.
Each year, KSC produces the downstream equivalent of more than 300 million broiler chicks in the U.S. and nine international markets, including countries in Central America, as well as in Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and more. Recently, the company signed a contract to deliver to Belize.
“Right now, we sell around 60 percent of our broiler hatching eggs internationally,” says Freeman, noting 75 percent of the company’s export business goes to Mexico.
According to Jim Jones, KSC live production manager, the company’s export growth started booming around 2010 thanks to a focus on building partnerships and relations in Latin America.
“We really went after that market,” Jones says. “Prior, we had mainly exported to Canada and the Caribbean markets, but not much beyond that. We’ve really reached out and grown far beyond anything we’ve ever done before.”
KSC has twice received the Arkansas Governor’s Award for Excellence in Global Trade for their innovative work in export business.
In May 2016, KSC was awarded with the President’s “E” Award for Exports at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., presented by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. The award is the highest recognition a U.S. entity can receive for making significant contributions to expanding national exports.
To learn more about Arkansas’s poultry industry and growing exports sector, visit thepoultryfederation.com.