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West Virginia’s poultry industry includes some of the best-known names in the business: Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, and, until recently, British United Turkeys of America (BUTA). From the fully integrated operation of Pilgrim’s Pride, which bought out WLR Foods in 2001, to the turkey breeder operation of the Aviagen division which bought out BUTA, poultry production brings in nearly $300 million a year. Broiler and turkey sales account for most of that.

Poultry accounts for nearly one-third of income from agriculture in the state. In addition, more than 4,500 people are employed in the various aspects of production. Annually the growers raise about 70 million broilers and nearly four million turkeys; the hatcheries set millions of eggs a week. The center of the state’s poultry industry is in the South Branch Valley. The counties of Hardy, Pendleton, Grant, Hampshire, and Mineral account for about 93 percent of all the broilers and turkeys raised in West Virginia.

Records were first kept on chicken production in 1924, although poultry research began at West Virginia University in 1897. In 1919, a poultry extension program was started, and in 1934 the first West Virginia State Poultry Association meeting was held in Morgantown. That annual event moved to Moorefield in 1953 and has been there ever since.

In January 1938, records indicated there were four million chickens on farms in West Virginia. Turkeys numbered 274,000. There was no reference to broiler chickens at that time, but two years later four million broilers were produced. During World War II, broiler meat production was emphasized to supply food for the war effort.

Beginning in 1950, great changes took place in the poultry industry. Poultry farming changed from the keeping of a flock of chickens as part of a diversified farm operation to the specialized production of broilers under contract to a major meat processor. Disease and parasite controls, feed-conversion enhancements, accelerated growth, and bigger housing were among the changes. As compared to early tar paper sheds with dirt floors, today 25,000 broilers are housed in 40-by 500-foot houses where heat, water, and feed are controlled by computers. A three-and-a-half pound broiler is raised for slaughter in six weeks, and about two million are processed each week at the plant in Moorefield.

In the 1980s, the West Virginia poultry industry escaped potential disaster after Avian influenza was detected in Virginia and also in Pennsylvania. The state’s borders were closed to outside birds, while farmers tightened security and sanitation measures. The preventive measures worked, and the virus was kept outside the state.

In 1985, a disastrous flood hit West Virginia. Poultry houses, along with many thousands of birds, were lost; the processing plants were flooded; and the South Branch Valley Railroad, which brought in grain and other products for feed, was devastated. Growers whose flocks were not flooded received air-lifted feed until roads could be opened. The plants were back in business within two weeks as mud was hosed out, the machinery fixed or replaced, and potable water was restored.

The last decade of the 20th century saw many changes in the poultry industry. Wampler-Longacre bought out Rockingham Poultry Marketing Cooperative and became WLR Foods, Inc. Hester Industries, a family-owned processing operation, was sold to ConAgra, one of the nation’s largest diversified food industries. Perdue established breeder flocks in Hardy and Pendleton counties and then purchased Advantage Foods, a processing operation in Petersburg, which it later closed. Pilgrim’s Pride bought out ConAgra early in the new century, and Perdue acquired WLR.

By 2023, West Virginia had 2.1 million head of chickens (excluding broilers), marking a significant increase over the previous decade. The total inventory value was $19.9 million, a 57 percent increase in just over a decade. Meanwhile, income from those chickens dropped precipitously until 2022, from more than $233 million in sales of commercial broilers and nearly $1.8 million in chicken sales in 2013 to $137 million in broilers and only $276,000 in chicken sales in 2021. Some of this drop-off was apparently due to the COVID-19 pandemic because in 2022, commercial broilers bounced back dramatically, producing $253.6 million in broiler sales and $1.61 million in chicken sales.

Production and sales of eggs and turkeys have increased overall. In 2022, West Virginia produced 306 million eggs, a 25 percent increase since 2013; the total value of production was nearly $65 million, a 39 percent increase over the same time. Some 3.7 million turkeys were raised in West Virginia in 2022, a 23 percent increase since 2013; the value of production totaled $123.6 million, up 131 percent over that period.

The poultry industry in West Virginia still faces a number of challenges. Environmental groups claim poultry is responsible for putting unwanted nutrients in the watershed in the form of massive amounts of chicken manure. A cooperative effort by the industry, the state, and various agencies has established composting, litter controls, and sale of litter out of the area. By the 2020s, other concerns had also arisen. Most West Virginia poultry producers were reaching retirement age as younger people were leaving the state or pursuing non-agricultural careers. In addition, some of the prime areas for raising poultry — 43 percent is raised in Hardy County — is being developed for housing.

This Article was written by Phoebe Heishman

Last Revised on December 01, 2023

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Sources

Hyre, H. M. & B. W. Moore. The West Virginia Poultry Association: 1934-1984. Moorefield: West Virginia Poultry Association, 1985.

Gorski, Sam. One of West Virginia’s Biggest Exports Is at Risk, Here’s Why. WBOY, September 29, 2022.

The Poultry Plant That’s Changed the Face of This Appalachian Town. West Virginia Public Broadcasting, August 15, 2019.

West Virginia Department of Agriculture. West Virginia Annual Bulletin. 53. Charleston, WV: West Virginia Department of Agriculture, 2022.

Office of West Virginia Agricultural Statistics. "," Annual Bulletin No. 31. 2000.

Cite This Article

Heishman, Phoebe "Poultry." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 01 December 2023. Web. 23 February 2024.

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