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Sanderson Farms is third-largest poultry producer in U.S.

chicken_rgbSanderson Farms has grown from a small farm supply store in Laurel to a large publicly-traded company that makes Mississippi proud. The company is now the country’s third-largest poultry producer with 11,700 employees and 800 chicken growers across five states. It’s still headquartered in Laurel where D.R. Sanderson, D.R. Sanderson Jr. and Joe Frank Sanderson opened a store in 1947 that sold feed, fertilizer and farm supplies. In the following years, the Sanderson brothers added poultry production to their business. It was a smart business move as chickens would have to be fed and the Sandersons sold feed.

Today, the company has annual sales of more than $2.68 billion with plants in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina where more than 9 million chickens are processed each week. A new plant in Palestine, Texas, will open in January, and a new plant is planned in North Carolina.

Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell says the company does not break down the economic impact state by state, but almost half of the employees and half of the processing plants are located in Mississippi, giving the state a substantial impact. The Mississippi plants are located in Hazlehurst, McComb, Collins, Laurel and Jackson.

“The company has tripled its size since the early 1990s when we decided to go public,” he said. “The company will continue to grow. The option not to grow is not there as the stockholders expect growth. We already operate really well and plan to keep doing that.”

Sanderson Farms went public in 1987, and Cockrell says the company hasn’t managed the business any differently although the responsibility became greater. “We had shareholders before 1987 but have had more since that time and we reward them with growth,” he said. “They have confidence in the chicken industry in general.”

The Sanderson Farms Classic PGA tournament which will be held at the Jackson Country Club in 2014

The Sanderson Farms Classic PGA tournament which will be held at the Jackson Country Club in 2014

He points out that the industry has cycles and is influenced by corn and soybean meal costs with feed making up more than 50 percent of production costs. Drought and product demand also play a role in production. Still, the company has experienced steady growth and Cockrell says Sanderson Farms is excited about growth in the next five to 10 years.

“Chicken production is a heavily regulated industry with the United States Department of Agriculture having a big presence in our plants. They inspect every chicken and are in our plants every day,” Cockrell said. “Other regulatory agencies involved with us are OSHA, the Department of Labor, Food and Drug and the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s just part of doing business, and as long as everyone is treated fairly, we don’t complain.”

Consumer preferences have changed as U.S. consumers have moved toward white meat and the convenience of deboned chicken. Other countries aren’t the same and prefer dark meat as a cheap source of protein. “These different consumer demands work well for us,” Cockrell said. “Chicken has been around a long time and is a great source of protein.”

There’s a small market for organic chicken but Sanderson Farms does not produce that kind. “There isn’t much organic corn grown to feed these chickens,” Cockrell said. “Our chicken is all natural, and we like to control what our chickens eat. They are fed a balanced diet.”

Sanderson Farms became the presenting sponsor of the annual golf tournament that raises funds for the Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson.

“We’re proud to be the sponsor and have agreed to do it the next three years,” Cockrell said. “We’re also proud of the $500,000 that was raised for this charity; that’s why we do it.”

The tournament has changed the date and location this year. It will be played at the Country Club of Jackson during the first week of November.

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