|By TIM THORNBERRY
LONDON, Ky. — The poultry industry has catapulted into contention as one of Kentucky’s leading agricultural commodities representing more than $800 million annually in farm receipts.
Poultry producers are celebrating those numbers with September being National Chicken Month.
Last year, Kentucky broilers receipts alone topped the $700 million mark, an 18 percent increase on 2004. Only horses and stud fees brought in more; and with poultry’s growing popularity, festivals have popped up across the state to honor and celebrate the chicken.
One such event is the World Chicken Festival - in London each year - and it celebrates Kentucky’s poultry heritage. More than 250,000 visit the four-day event noted for the world’s largest stainless steel skillet, which is 10 feet, 6 inches in diameter, weighs 700 pounds and can cook up to 600 quarters of chicken at a time.
The festival also hosts a Col. Harland Sanders look-a-like contest. Sanders, of course, was the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), one of the most recognized brands in the world. The festival has been voted as one of the Kentucky Tourism Council’s Top Ten Events and the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events. Ken Harvey, executive director of the London-Laurel Co. Tourism Commission said it was in the spirit of Sanders that the festival was formed.
“The festival got its start as an idea to do something in relationship with having the original KFC restaurant in this county,” he said. “We wanted to do something that would benefit tourism in our area and help raise funds for our non-profit groups and because the Colonel was known all over the world, we came up with the World Chicken Festival. We’ve turned the festival into a success story and we’re proud of it and do our best to make sure everyone has a good time.”
Bob Thompson of Lawrenceburg has seen most of the 17 Chicken Festivals; not necessarily through the eyes of a spectator, but through the eyes of the Colonel himself - or at least many think that upon seeing him for the first time.
Thompson, who once served his community as mayor, is one of the look-a-likes that makes his way to the festival every year to participate in the contest and spread a little good will along the way.
His look is so authentic, that he has represented KFC across the nation during promotional events from Major League Baseball games to the Academy Awards ceremony.
“The first time someone saw a resemblance between me and the Colonel was in Japan while I was on an economic development trip there,” he said. “I’ve had the white hair forever, but the Japanese people thought I looked like him. After I retired, I grew out the whiskers and people here began to make comments about how much I looked like him.”
It was then Thompson first went to the festival and began his second career as the Colonel. In addition to his public appearances, he also lends his “celebrity” status to charitable causes. Thompson, whose great-grandmother was a Sanders, although he doesn’t know if they are related, has even met the last living daughter of the real Colonel Sanders and corresponds with her.
“She has been very cordial to me over the years,” he said. “The only request she made of me was to stay out of bars. I told her that was no problem.”
Besides the festivals, the poultry business has also created economic growth, especially in Western Kentucky where there is a Tyson hatchery near Beech Grove and a Perdue feed mill near Livermore.
Perdue also has a processing plant in Cromwell, and Tyson has a facility in Robards as well as a feed mill located north of Sebree.
Banker Charlie Mann raises between 120,000 and 149,000 chickens at a time in six grower houses and averages 5.25 flocks per year. Mann has been in the banking industry for more than 27 years as a vice president and business development officer.
“Being raised on a farm myself, growing tobacco, I was looking for an opportunity to get back into agriculture and saw the opportunity to do so,” Mann said. “Everything just works fine for our operation. The return on investment has even exceeded our expectations.”
Otis Griffin, another McClean County producer, has three complexes with a capacity of 90,000-95,000 chickens each on his farm. He built the first four-house complex in 1996 and since has built two more.
“We were looking for something else. Grain prices were not very consistent and not very good for quite a while. Tobacco was under pressure. I was looking for something different. I haven’t regretted a minute of it,” Griffin said of his poultry operation. “It has increased my cash flow tremendously. It’s been a real miracle for me. I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Kentucky also is home to a Cagle’s Keystone poultry processing facility in Albany and a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Mayfield.
The poultry industry has enabled many producers to stay on the farm, provided many communities economic benefits from events such as festivals and preserved a bit of heritage at the same time and, as they say, that ain’t just chicken feed. For details on National Chicken Month, visit www.nationalchickenmonth.com
For information on the World Chicken Festival, go to www.chickenfestival.com
This farm news was published in the Sept. 13, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.