The humble chicken has risen from the obscurity of the barnyard to the summit of South Carolina agriculture. In the late twentieth century the poultry industry (broilers, turkeys, and eggs) became the state’s leading agribusiness, contributing $500 million annually to the state’s economy. But before chickens and turkeys were cash crops, they were part of the culture. Native Americans raised turkeys long before Europeans and Africans came to South Carolina, and chickens arrived with the first settlers. Soon chickens were the most common domestic animal in South Carolina, and virtually every farm family raised poultry for its own table and sold surplus eggs and fowl to townsfolk. This pattern of husbandry persisted nearly three centuries. Predictably, poultry earned an honored place in the region’s cuisine: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken bog, and pilau became celebrated staples of the Carolina diet.
Poultry evolved from a subsistence activity to a business in the 1930s. Farmers fleeing boll-weevil-infested cotton fields experimented with poultry as a cash crop. Production of broilers (chickens ten to twelve weeks of age at processing) rose from a mere 300,000 head in 1934 to 14 million by 1952 and to 48 million by the 1980s. The South Carolina poultry industry followed the pattern developed in Georgia by J. D. Jewell in the 1940s. Farmers entered partnerships with poultry processors, providing land, buildings, and equipment; processors furnished baby chicks, feed, vaccines, and veterinary services. Farmers fed and cared for the chicks until market weight was achieved. Processors collected the fowl and paid farmers based on weight gain. Processors then slaughtered, dressed, packaged, and delivered birds to market. Farmers typically raised four broods each per year.
The poultry industry experienced phenomenal growth in the 1980s and 1990s. In the ten-year period from 1982 to 1992, receipts from chickens and turkeys tripled, rising to $206 million. In the 1990s poultry sales tripled again, topping $620 million and accounting for thirty-seven percent of the state’s agribusiness income. Observers credit automation and mass production for keeping consumer prices low, making poultry a bargain. Cultural influences were also factors. Health-conscience consumers made chicken and turkey centerpieces of the trendy low-fat cuisine that swept the country in the 1990s. In 2001 broilers, turkeys, and eggs ranked first, fifth, and seventh, respectively, of South Carolina’s top-ten commodities.
The state’s largest poultry processors in the mid-1990s were Columbia Farms, headquartered in Lexington County; Prestage Farms, with plants in Kershaw and Newberry; and Perdue Farms, Dillon County’s largest employer. Sumter County is home to Manchester Farms, the nation’s largest producer of farm-raised quail. Poultry has affected the landscape as well. The high-tech chicken house has replaced cotton sheds and tobacco barns on many South Carolina farms.
Gray, Lewis C. History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute, 1933.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Rogers, Aida. “Poultry in Motion.” Sandlapper 6 (spring 1995): 20–24.