Alabama poultry farmers continue to rebuild, five months after last spring’s tornadoes shattered many of their chicken house operations.
The April 27 storms destroyed or heavily damaged more than 700 chicken houses, and about 70 percent of the affected farmers are staying in the business, said John McMillan, the state’s agriculture commissioner.
The rest, he said, have elected to walk away, based on a number of factors, including their age, the amount of insurance they had and whether there is another generation coming along to take over the business.
“It boils down to an individual small business person decision-making process,” he said.
Rebuilding was first slowed by the massive amounts of debris left in the wake of the tornadoes, which killed 3.2 million chickens.
Building supplies and labor also have been limited in northern Alabama, the heart of the state’s poultry industry, and the region that took the brunt of the tornado damage.
A lot of the farmers have either started or are well into rebuilding their chicken houses by now, but no one has gotten new chickens yet, McMillan said.
As for Alabama’s poultry industry at large — which produces 1 billion chickens annually and ranks No. 3 in the nation behind Arkansas and Georgia — the tornadoes have had little impact.
“There are so many growers and there are so many chickens being hatched out and delivered every week … in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal,” McMillan said.
However, he adds, for individual farmers, it is a big deal, particularly those who depend on the income the chicken houses bring.
Complicating the business rebuilding efforts for those farmers is the fact that some also lost their own homes in the storms.
Charlie and Marti Short, who live north of Piedmont, just recently moved back onto their property after staying in a hotel for 4 1/2 months. The couple, who have four children, lost their home, along with four chicken houses, barns and vehicles.
“All that was left was the subfloor on top of the basement,” Marti Short said. “We were all safe. We were actually in the basement.”
The family is now living in a barn on their property while they’re waiting on their house to be finished, which they hope will happen by Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“We’ve got all the beds lined up and appliances. We’re not having to travel back and forth and live in hotels. We’re actually home,” Short said.
Just this week, the chicken house rebuilding began, and that’s expected to last three or four months, she said.
Charlie Short works for Norfolk Southern railroad, while Marti runs the chicken houses, with help from her husband and children.
“Everybody’s pulled together, trying to get us back in here and back in business,” she said.
Kennard and Kathy Little of Mount Hope also lost everything in the tornadoes: their home, four chicken houses, sheds and equipment.
The couple’s home is almost finished, but the chicken house rebuilding will probably take another three months, Kathy Little said.
“It’s been rough,” she said. “There was so much debris, and getting that cleaned up was the biggest hurdle.”
Rebuilding has been slow because builders are stretched so thin, she said.
The Littles, whose sole income is the poultry business, considered going in a different direction after losing everything.
“We debated it for a while, but we decided that’s really the only thing we wanted to do,” Little said. “We really enjoy the chicken business.”
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