Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather
Posted Jan 25th, 2021

Wayne Farms had a few things on its wish list when it came to choosing a home for a major plant expansion in 2017. It had to be somewhere the poultry producer had an established presence, access to transportation and a ready workforce, and strong electric partners.

“In this business electricity is critical,” says Area Complex Manager Brad Williams. “We can’t just stop. We’re working with a perishable product, and we’d be out of business if we did that. So it was a top priority to have a developed relationship with electric providers like South Alabama Electric and PowerSouth.”

With all those considerations in play, Coffee County was the clear choice for Wayne Farms’ new processing plant. The company broke ground on the $110 million project in December 2017, and the new facility opened in May 2018, creating 400 new jobs.

“It has had a huge impact for Wayne Farms and South Alabama,” Williams says. “We increased our production in Enterprise by 40%, meaning that our three locations in South Alabama now make up about a third of the company’s production.”

The new processing plant was also designed from the ground up for a new premium product line: Naked Truth Chicken. While Wayne Farms has traditionally provided high-quality chicken to popular chains like Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s, the Naked Truth brand is available directly to consumers at high-end stores like Whole Foods.

“We developed the new brand based on what our customers were interested in purchasing, such as chicken raised with stricter animal welfare standards and an all-natural, antibiotic-free diet,” Williams says. “The new plant gives us an opportunity to distribute a brand under our own name.”

Wayne Farms’ Enterprise expansion began production in May 2018.

Nothing but the truth

For Naked Truth Chicken to meet those high standards, Wayne Farms had to rethink its process, from the chicken houses to the final product. It starts with farming partners across South Alabama who ensure their birds are getting natural light and a vegetable diet free of any animal byproducts.

From there, the birds are transported to the plant by trailer in large drawers. Then, they are unloaded onto a conveyor belt that automatically unstacks each container. Using a mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen, employees humanely incapacitate the birds before moving them to a second conveyor for the next stage of processing.

Once the birds have been slaughtered, the feathers have been removed and edible parts of the animal have been separated, each is washed and inspected by Wayne Farms employees and USDA officials. After being chilled for an hour, the chicken is then hung for automatic weighing and grading.

“That technology looks at each piece for flaws or issues with the meat,” Williams says. “From there, we can take each bird and put it on one of three different lines, depending on its size and what we want the finished product to be.”

Afterward, Wayne Farms uses smart technology to debone the birds and put them through an X-ray scanner. If any bones are detected, those pieces are checked by hand. When cleared, the meats can either be packaged fresh or moved on for further processing, such as cutting them into shapes suitable for nuggets or sandwiches.

To do this, the facility uses a computerized portioner that cuts the meat with a high-powered water jet. Each of these machines can cut approximately 100 pieces per minute. Then each piece is either marinated or packaged fresh, ready to be frozen and delivered across the country that day.

Feeding growth

As the production standards at the Enterprise plant have increased, so has Wayne Farms’ need to work with reliable poultry farmers. Williams estimates the company is partnered with hundreds of local farm families across South Alabama. And the higher standards for Naked Truth Chicken give them even more responsibility.

“A big part of their job is to make sure that commitment to animal welfare happens,” Williams says. “They have to make sure they’re on top of the nutrition, the equipment for feeding and the environment. So it’s very important for us to work with people we can trust.”

The new project meant expanding the company’s longtime relationships with its farm families, like the Shelleys at Beaver Creek Farm in Henry County, and creating new partnerships with others, like the Snellgroves in Coffee County. The Snellgroves began growing chickens for Wayne Farms in 2015.

Williams estimates that Wayne Farms’ growth has led to approximately $60 million invested by local farms throughout South Alabama. These investments contribute to a $9 million increase to local farm payrolls each year. In addition, the company bought 3 million bushels of corn from local farms last year for its feed mill in Ozark.

“The economic impact has been huge for the area, and it just shows our commitment to the local community,” Williams says. “We’re proud to do it because we have worked with so many great farmers as long as we’ve been in this state — great people who are pillars of the community and the backbone of Alabama. We’re proud to work with them.”