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Company invests in new technology

Choctaw Maid jobs offset garment industry losses

CARTHAGE – After Choctaw Maid Farms processing plant underwent a $55-million expansion, confused motorists showed up at the front gate of the Choctaw Maid Farms, looked up at the attractive new facility on top of the hill, and asked, “Is this a gambling casino?”

“At times even diverting stray tourists, Choctaw Maid’s Carthage plant hums night and day and achieves a Frank Lloyd Wright-like quality in its integration of form, function and site,” Broiler Industry magazine said in a July 1977 cover story on Choctaw Maid. “Choctaw Maid Farms has created the largest broiler processing plant in the world (except for Foster Farms’ plant in California which is really two processing plants back to back). The Carthage plant is of mind-boggling proportions and impressive sanitation standards. The most interesting aspect of the new plant is that it will work non-stop around the clock.”

Choctaw Maid Farms has gone through an expansion in the past four years that has seen their work force grow from between 800 and 900 to 3,200 employees. A $55-million addition at the Carthage processing plant added 280,000 square feet and increased the slaughter volume from 650,000 chickens per week to 1.7 million chickens per week.

At the same time the company invested $9 million in a 180-ton per hour feed mill in Union, and built new hatcheries in Newton and Walnut Grove that can hatch 3.5 million chickens per week.

“We closed down some old facilities, built some new facilities, and renovated,” says Duffy McKenzie, president and chief operating officer of Choctaw Maid. “Two new hatcheries replaced five old hatcheries, and the new feed mill replaced two old feed mills. It was in the long-term plan a few years ago to expand. We were taking advantage of the market and labor conditions, and the good business management strengths at Choctaw Maids.”

McKenzie credited Tam Etheridge, chairman and CEO of Choctaw Maid, for having the vision and management skills that allowed the large expansions. Etheridge, who has operated the company since the early 1960s, is still active in the company today.

The Choctaw Maid Farms strategy with the expansion is to reduce costs by a penny a pound by achieving economies of scale and state-of-the-art technology.

“The vast number of broilers being processed at the Choctaw Maid plant would have been unimaginable to early broiler processors,” Broiler Industry said. “However, processors have always understood the important of capturing economies of scale. In plain English, that means building a plant big enough to get the lowest possible cost per pound of production.”

The major expansion at Choctaw Maid Farms happened at the same time that the labor market has tightened, with unemployment rates at a 30-year low in the U.S. McKenzie said that the tighter labor market came at the same time they were nearly tripling the size of their work force at the Carthage plant from 800 to 2,200.

“Since the low unemployment rate has arrived, we have struggled like anyone else,” McKenzie said. “It hit us hard because the expansion came at the same time the labor market got tighter. We have expanded labor recruiting efforts, and have upgraded our facilities as far as employee welfare. We’re offering a safe and healthy work place. And we’re trying to get out to the community more of the career opportunities we have at Choctaw Maid.”

Choctaw Maid Farms is by far the largest employer in Carthage, population 4,000. Linda Shepard, executive director of the Leake County Chamber and Industrial Development Association, said the expansion at Choctaw helped replace jobs lost in the garment industry.

“With the loss of jobs in our garment industry over the past several years, it has been a blessing that our home-grown company, Choctaw Maid, has chosen to expand here at this time,” Shepard said. “We have been real fortunate. If it had not been for Choctaw Maid, we would have had a major loss of jobs after several of our garment industries shut down. Choctaw Maid has tripled their employment in a short period of time. That is phenomenal growth.”

McKenzie said the company targets the boneless breast market for fast food and food service operations.

About 35% to 40% of the company’s product is in the leg quarter form. Previously the company exported a lot of the leg quarters to Russia. Like other processors, Choctaw Maid Farms was affected by the decline in poultry exports due to economic problems in Russia.

“It is harder to find a home for the dark meat,” McKenzie said. “Russia had been a good market for the leg quarters. Things are picking up a little on Russian exports, but not dramatically.”

Choctaw Maid Farms has climbed the ranks of the top 100 private companies in Mississippi, growing from the 22nd largest private company in 1997 to the 14th largest company in 1999. Sales for 1999 are estimated at $250 million.


Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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