published on June 22, 2020 - 1:37 PM
Written by John Lindt

Livingston-based Foster Farms is ready to reopen some of those shuttered poultry ranches in Kings County it bought out of bankruptcy from Zacky Farms last year.

It turns out that Chicken Little was right regards the sky falling — at least with Zacky Farms. The Fresno turkey company declared bankruptcy in November 2018, shutting down all Central Valley operations and laying off 1,500. Zacky was a fourth-generation, family owned California poultry company.

Now Foster Farms is looking at an opportunity for bluer skies as it applied to Kings County in May to reopen five vacant ranches in the county and expand permitting to include chickens.

In its applications, Foster Farm says it wants to utilize not just the existing hen houses but also the penned area outside, allowing chickens to peck on vegetated land to meet organic labeling requirements.

Foster Farms won the bidding on 19 ranches put up for auction, mostly in Kings and Fresno counties last year under bankruptcy court proceedings. Foster Farms beat out rival Pitman Family Farms of Sanger for the 19 properties.


Pitman plans

Now both Valley broiler companies will compete in Kings County with Pitman too expanding operations at four of its ranches in the county, proposing to raise and harvest millions more chickens.

The Kings County Planning Commission approved the first and second of four poultry ranch expansions in the county at its January meeting. Pitman is enlarging its existing Smith Ranch poultry farm from 170,000 chickens to 1.02 million chickens on 86 acres.

The second site approved is located at the Pitman “Enns” Ranch, six miles north of Hanford. The company’s existing farm that houses 170,000 chickens will expand by 120,000 chickens, for a new total of approximately 290,000 chickens at one time. Two more Pitman ranches are in the permitting stage. The company has a 110-acre feed mill in Hanford.


Foster Farms want to go bigger, organic

Rival Foster Farms has two big feed mills nearby in Traver — one that is for organic feed. The plans just filed by Foster Farms seek to increase flexibility to raise turkeys or chickens. Chicken numbers at one 400-acre ranch — the 6th Avenue Ranch near Corcoran — will include organic and conventional chicken and turkeys of different sizes. As of now the facility has 1.2 million square feet under one roof and is permitted for only turkeys. The company wants to allow chickens as well. To grow their organic poultry, Foster Farms want to utilize outside penned areas to allow poultry to stretch their legs on irrigated vegetative ground.

Currently, the ranch is limited to 350,000 turkeys at one time. Now Foster Farms wants to house up to 1.5 million chickens or 500,000 turkeys at a time with up to eight flocks a year.

With the rapid turnover in flocks, the numbers in the millions of head grow fast.

Kings County has been a poultry growing area but the numbers have been small compared to the nearby counties to the north. But they have been growing recently. In 2017 the county crop report says growers raised 557,000 turkeys and 9 million chickens. By 2018 — the latest year on record — the county’s poultry flock grew to 885,000 turkeys and 16.1 million chickens. The chickens’ value in 2018 was $95 million. By contrast, poultry value in next door Fresno County was $500 million. They do not release the flock numbers.

Despite a worldwide epidemic, consumers are still purchasing chicken, even though restaurant sales are down. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that chicken consumption per capita has increased from 28 lbs per person in 1960 to more than 100 lbs in March 2020. By contrast, beef and pork are down — today at 58 lbs per person for beef.

Somehow chicken has been all the rage in pop culture with 2019 said to be the “year of the chicken wars” among brands like KFC, Popeyes, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s promoting their chicken sandwiches and folks lining up to get a taste.

Meanwhile the export market looks good. Due to Covid-19 the USDA broiler price forecast was recently decreased as prices are anticipated to remain soft for the remainder of 2020, while broiler export volumes were increased on higher shipments to China. That offers a market for chicken feet — not yet a popular product at US dining tables.

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