TPF President Chats About Poultry and Egg Industry

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Marvin Childers is president and chief lobbyist for The Poultry Federation, the Little Rock-headquartered nonprofit trade organization that represents the poultry and egg industry in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Childers was in Rogers recently for TPF’s 53rd annual Poultry Festival, which attracted more than 4,000 attendees, and sat down for a Q-and-A with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. The former Arkansas state representative talked about issues facing the industry, its economic impact on the state of Arkansas, and even which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Northwest Arkansas Business Journal: How did you first get involved in the poultry industry?

Marvin Childers: As I was leaving the House, Morril Harriman, who is Gov. (Mike) Beebe’s chief of staff, was the lobbyist for the Poultry Federation. That’s when I took the position, Jan. 1, 2007.

It was just an opportunity for me to stay involved in politics.

NWABJ: Lobbyists get a bad rap sometimes. Can you explain the need for lobbyists, and what a typical day might be like for you when you’re filling that role?

MC: For the Poultry Federation, lobbyist is just one of the many hats that I wear. We’re basically a trade organization and we focus on policy.

In a typical week, we not only have contact and communication with the General Assembly, but with state agencies that run from the (Arkansas) Department of Environmental Quality, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, the (Arkansas) Department of Finance and Administration.

And what we’re basically doing is we’re the go-between between all our members, which includes all the poultry companies, to the state agencies. It may be sales tax today, it may be an environmental issue tomorrow, it could be a worker’s comp issue. It’s the full gamut.

NWABJ: What, in your mind, are the biggest issues facing the poultry industry today?

MC: One of the biggest challenges today is ethanol — the Corn Belt pitted against animal agriculture. The biggest threat today to the poultry industry is the rising cost of corn and wheat, because about two-thirds of the cost of a bird is the feed. You can’t feed $8 corn to chickens and it be profitable. It’s just impossible. The price of chicken does not follow the cost of feed.

Another challenge is the regulations. Most of that comes on the federal side, whether it’s OSHA, the USDA, the EPA. Sometimes we take a bad rap, but I can tell you from personal experience, nobody cares about the environment more than the growers. I always say we’ve got a very good message, but we just don’t sing it loud enough.

We have the most abundant, most efficient, most affordable food supply. These growers and these companies are feeding the world. Arkansas ranks in No. 2 in broiler production, No. 4 in turkey production and No. 10 in egg production. We are the only state in the top 10 in all three.

I hate to do this to my friends over in row-crop country, because that’s where I grew up, but I always thought about agriculture in Arkansas as being rice, cotton, soybeans, wheat, milo and corn. Well, if you take the value of production of all of those six and add them together, they (equal) poultry.

Poultry is just a huge economic engine to the state. The poultry industry alone has about 45,000 direct jobs and about 55,000 indirect jobs.

NWABJ: Speaking of that, a lot of people like eating chicken, but they probably don’t realize the industry’s economic impact. Some of the numbers are just mind-boggling.

MC: If you just had a general conversation with someone and said, “How many chickens do we process a week?” people will think “Well, there are about 3 million people in the state, so…”

But I think it’s about 26 million that are processed a week. Those numbers are just staggering, and what I take from that is we’re second in the nation. That’s just plain evidence that we’re feeding the world the safest, most affordable, most efficient food supply. One of the hubs of that is Northwest Arkansas. That’s one of the best, well-kept secrets in the state, how much the poultry industry drives the economics of Northwest Arkansas.

NWABJ: Burger King made news recently with its decision to use only cage-free eggs by 2017. What are your thoughts on the cage-free issue?

MC: That’s another area where we just do not do a very good job of telling the facts. Those types of issues are mostly driven by emotions, but for a grower to make a profit, a grower has to have a healthy chick, a healthy bird, and provide that bird an environment where it can grow, sufficient water, correct temperature and proper feed.

A sick chicken makes a grower nothing, so for the Humane Society or the uneducated population to say, “We don’t want chickens in cages,” well, the truth of the matter is the current environment those chickens are living in provides them the best health. They’re kept away from the environment — rain, sleet, snow, 120 degrees outside.

NWABJ: This is the fifth time for this event to be held in Rogers. What do you like most about this area?

MC: One, we’re close to the industry. If you take Fort Smith to Siloam Springs and Springdale to Berryville, and make that kind of a square, probably 75 to 80 percent of the processing is in that corridor, so the venue provides us close proximity to the growers and the processing plant employees.

Two, the facilities here at the Embassy Suites and Hammons Convention Center are second to nowhere. The Rogers(-Lowell Area) Chamber of Commerce and the convention and visitors bureau have been partners from Day 1.

I’ll give it to Rogers for bringing us. They recruited us, courted us, provided us with some incentives and have been a partner second to none.

And what makes it good for the participants is we have a bass tournament with about 50 or 60 boats, a golf tournament with over 450 golfers, a horseshoe tournament, we’re shooting skeet in Bella Vista. Northwest Arkansas just has the facilities that will accommodate that type of crowd.

NWABJ: What is the highlight, for you, of the Poultry Festival?

MC: The highlight is to see it all come together and to see the participation of the employees of the major poultry companies, just to share in the relaxation, the sporting events, the barbecue, all the fun times.

NWABJ: Is there anything, specifically, you’re looking forward to this weekend?

MC: Part of my job is to make sure everybody leaves here with a good experience. This is basically a once-a-year celebration of the industry, and folks get a chance to relax and have fun.

NWABJ: The event is sold out. Does that say anything about the strength of the industry?

MC: I think it’s a combination. We’ve got a great band in Montgomery Gentry. They’re rising stars, really on the way up.

Two, it’s the participation by the companies. We sell our tickets, but we don’t sell to outsiders. It’s all within our industry.

NWABJ: Do you have an update on the construction of your new headquarters in Little Rock?

MC: They’re digging the footings today. The old building has been completely demolished, the new plans have been approved, the financing is in place.

NWABJ: Something called Sooey Sauce is making its debut this weekend. Is eating Sooey Sauce a problem for an Ole Miss grad?

MC: Absolutely not. I’m a Razorback at this point.

NWABJ: The federation also raises a lot of money for scholarships. Can you talk about how it’s raised and distributed?

MC: We have a scholarship committee and they work all year long soliciting items for the scholarship auction. We’ll have a professional auctioneer and we’ll auction about 25 live items. The rest of them will be in a silent auction.

Last year we raised $85,000 and we gave away $75,000 in scholarships. It’s really focused on junior, senior and graduate students. We gave two poultry science and nutrition Ph.D. students full rides, so it’s a very competitive process.

NWABJ: Last question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

MC: That’s already been decided. Scientifically, that’s been decided. The chicken came first.