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Buying the farm … and more

A small Central Mississippi community is pushing to get an idled poultry operation up and running again, looking to recoup hundreds of jobs that were lost when it declared bankruptcy.

Located on Highway 35 North, Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing offers substantial assets for sale.

Now, Equity Partners Inc. has the challenge of not only finding a buyer for the sprawling poultry complex in Forest that includes the assets of the former sister companies Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing, but also one who wants to reopen the plant, not just make an investment.

“That would be the fun part for me,” said Dan Rexford, managing director and founder of Easton, Md.-based Equity Partners, “seeing the operation running and people working.”

The Harralson family had operated the sprawling complex for more than 50 years, spanning three generations, when the economy and soaring input costs forced Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

At one point, the sister companies employed approximately 600 workers in the small city in Scott County. Stephen Smith of Jackson-based Smith & Company, P.A., the Chapter 7 trustee charged with maximizing the value of the companies’ assets, said the complex had a payroll of roughly 300 workers when it was idled.

“It was a blow to the community to lose that many jobs,” Smith said. “We would all like to see this operation back in business.”

It was Smith who put forth the motion in Bankruptcy Court to hire Equity Partners, which has a track record of success in similar transactions. As example, Equity Partners recently completed the sale of a complex in Charles City, Iowa. That property ended up at auction with five companies competing for the acquisition. A group out of Chicago produced the winning bid.

However, that complex had never gone into production, Rexford said. The sales process in Forest is more complex in that buyers want to see the property, look at the existing equipment, etc.

“This kind of transaction is just going to take more time,” Rexford said.

The principals have been pleased with the early response from prospective buyers. At press time, the property had only been on the market for a couple of weeks. More than 20 prospects had already expressed interest in buying Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing. Most have regional or national presences and they are headquartered across the U.S.

Rexford said if a buyer were found, it would most likely be a company or group that has an existing regional or national footprint.

Rexford added, though, that some of those prospects were looking at the property only as an investment — some were not interested in getting the plant back in operation and adding the looked-for jobs.

He is moderately optimistic that a buyer can be found. Considering the economy and other factors, Rexford said he feels “fairly good” about the prospects of finding an appropriate buyer.

“While our charge is to maximize the value of our assets, our ultimate goal is to get this poultry operation back up and running,” Rexford said. “I don’t know if we are going to be able to do it, but we will turn over every stone. If need be, we will sell off the parts to recover funds for creditors.”

The effort to reopen Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing has been joined by both the City of Forest and the Mid-Mississippi Development District.

“The City of Forest has a long successful history of working with prospective industry to locate in our city,” said Forest Mayor Nancy Chambers. “We look forward to every opportunity to participate in working to secure jobs for our people and especially in helping to replace those jobs lost by the closing of Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing.”

“Forest Packing and Lady Forest Farms have been major forces in the regional economy for years, and we need to do whatever we can to replace those jobs,” said Randy McMillan, director of the Mid-Mississippi Development District.

Located on Highway 35 North, Lady Forest Farms and Forest Packing offers substantial assets for sale. These include: a hatchery; 12 pullet houses; 11 breeder houses; feed mill; processing plant; office building; a separate 65-acre tract served by the Kansas City Southern rail line; and, 1,000-plus acre pine tree plantation with turkey, deer and stocked ponds.

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