HARRISONBURG — To some, poultry processing is business. To Corwin Heatwole, CEO of Shenandoah Valley Organics and a sixth-generation farmer from Bath County, it’s personal.
“I knew what the problems were. I knew what the farmers needed and what the chickens needed,” he said. “I just had to create a niche product because I was not going to be able to compete with the bigger companies.”
Heatwole opened the facility in Harrisonburg in 2014, processing about 20,000 birds a week at the former Pilgrim’s Pride processing plant.
The business has rapidly grown, including a recent expansion with a new high-speed line and automation.
“Today, we’re running near 200,000 [birds] a week,” Heatwole said.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, 80 to 100 workers toiled night and day to have the United States’ first automated giblet remover operating along with the company’s new high-speed line by start of production on July 8.
“The brand is building momentum beyond what our plant had capacity for,” Heatwole said.
The company’s newest brand, Farmer Focus, hit shelves last summer in 300 to 400 stores. Now, Farmer Focus is regularly carried in over 2,700 locations, Heatwole said.
The expansion, with a price tag Heatwole declined to tell, consists of two parts.
One is a new high-speed line, which increases the number of birds per minute from 70 to 140.
The other is the new automated giblet remover, called the Harvest System for Maestro Plus, from Dutch-owned American company Meyn America LLC. It takes the chickens through several “modules” where the organs are removed, washed and sorted.
Afterwards, the organs are reinserted back into the chicken.
SVO had reached out to Meyn looking to buy a new high-speed line, and in a deal, the company “threw in” the automated line, Heatwole said.
“Meyn developed this technology and tested it in several plants in the Netherlands, and we are the first to have it in the United States,” he said.
The poultry industry in the Netherlands is different than in the United States, with a more centralized layout and fewer workers with more automation in facilities.
Many companies turn to automation for a variety of reasons, including labor supply. The poultry industry is constantly looking for new workers, but the difficulty in finding workers was not a driver for this new line, Heatwole said.
In fact, the new automated line will result in no layoffs and no new hires — yet, he said.
“Obviously, the goal will be to fully utilize this equipment with a second shift, but it could be a year or two until we do second shift,” Heatwole said.
The plant has 430 full-time employees on one shift and a small second shift for retail packaging.
With the process going at full speed around the clock, Heatwole said he expects they would need to hire approximately 320 people to fill a second shift.
The real driver was in increased value from the giblets, which can add additional revenue to the company, Heatwole said.
Plus, the new high-speed line will allow the company to process more poultry over a shorter period of time.
On the previous 70-bird-per-minute line, five or six employees hand-harvest organs such as the heart, liver, and gizzards from the birds as they passed.
This resulted in an organ capture rate of about 20%.
The new Meyn equipment not only speeds up the birds per minute to 140, but it also increases the capture rate to 95% with only one person working at a sort table, Heatwole said.
And the market for poultry with organs is a growing sector, he said.
“More people are willing to spend more time cooking at home, which is also more of the more consciously aware consumers who tend to be your organic consumers as well,” Heatwole said.
SVO also takes a different approach to the poultry growing model, Heatwole said.
In traditional poultry industry models, the animals are the property of the company even as the grower is raising them.
With SVO, the ownership of the chickens is given to the farmers — increasing the risk but decreasing the company’s control of the farmers’ process and increasing payment for the grown poultry.
“We don’t have to tell the farmer how to spend their money, which is huge,” he said.
SVO has seen success with this model, starting with just six farmers and 29 barns to 50 farms and 105 poultry barns, all within about an hour’s drive from the plant.
They even have a waitlist of growers who want to work with them, Heatwole said.
“Now that we’re expanding to this level to touch more farmers’ lives, it’s very exciting, but it’s also humbling at the same time,” Heatwole said.