MOULTRIE -- Over lunch at the Laurel Country Club in Laurel, Miss., after tasty appetizers of chicken fingers, officials of the sixth largest poultry processor in the U.S. announced Tuesday their plan to locate a poultry processing plant in Colquitt County and a feed mill and hatchery in neighboring Cook County.

"We're glad. We're ready to get to work and get to Georgia," Sanderson Farms President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Sanderson said.

On the top of the list of sites for the processing plant, which will process 1.2 million birds per week, is acreage owned by several parties along Quitman Highway around Moultrie's Fire Station 3. The proposed location consists of hundreds of acres and would be set back from the highway behind the station on top of a hill, barely visible from the highway with much of the property used as a buffer, planners said.

Development officials have said they are considering having the plant as an anchor for an industrial park funded by a portion of sales tax revenues slated for that purpose.

Sanderson said the company shied away from considering a sod farm on Highway 37 out of deference to residents' concerns and actually prefers the Quitman Highway site, saying the rolling landscape and oak trees are aesthetically pleasing. Plus, it's located adjacent to city limits and on Highway 133, which the state is planning to four-lane from Albany to Valdosta.

Bids already are out on the feed mill and hatchery, company officials said, and the projects should break ground within 30 days. The plant (paired with a wastewater treatment facility) will lag behind about a month, and construction should take up to a year.

The $96 million investment will create more than 1,700 new jobs in the area. Contract growers will invest an additional $85 million in poultry production facilities.

About half the breeder contracts have been made. Most of the growers signing contracts are from Colquitt County. As it predicted, the company is drawing interest from counties within a close radius of Colquitt and Cook counties.

Keenly aware of skyrocketing construction costs, Sanderson Farms will continue to evaluate the impact those additional costs have on estimated returns established during grower interest meetings held locally in March, Director of Development Bob Billingsley said.

The company said the estimated annual payroll and contract payments to 130 growers could amount to $58.2 million.

A recent Associated Press article said the state is offering the company incentives, but Kevin Langston, a spokesman for the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, said those were still being negotiated. He declined to offer further details.

Although Sanderson Farms initially was entertaining South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia for the complex, Billingsley said any future plants likely would go in Mississippi, Texas or Georgia.

Sanderson Farms has a huge supply contract with Winn-Dixie grocery stores, but Billingsley shrugged off the likely closure of 156 Winn-Dixies, saying the shutdowns would have minimal effect on profits.

The company is eager to locate in Georgia to reach further into eastern markets. However, it's not willing to compromise its quality, Billingsley said. Sanderson Farms produces all-natural products and turned down a possible contract with Wal-Mart, because it refused to inject salt water phosphate into its meat to round out weight, he added.

Civic leaders tour state-of-art poultry plant

By Lori Glenn

MOULTRIE -- Approaching McComb, Miss., via air, chicken houses, neatly positioned in groups of four and six, increasingly dot the patchwork of countryside below.

An entourage of civic leaders and press from Colquitt and Cook counties were entering Sanderson Farms country, courtesy of a Sanderson Farms jet.

And what was found on tour were clean facilities, no odor and seemingly content workers.

McComb is the home of pop tart Brittany Spears and the late country comedian Jerry Clower and the place where legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd died in a plane crash. But Sanderson Farms' impact is heavy as well in that area, which demographically is similar to the chosen area in Georgia.

The state-of-the-art facility employs about 1,400 workers, as will the Moultrie plant. Although the McComb plant was built in 1992, it was remarkably clean and apparently efficient.

At the highly automated Moultrie facility, live chickens trucked to the plant site will be slaughtered, processed and packed into sealed, marketable packages in the span of three hours.

Although turnover at the McComb plant is about 50 percent, many workers have been with Sanderson Farms for years, even decades.

One woman on the slaughter line has worked in her position for seven years, plant managers pointed out.

As in the McComb plant, most of Moultrie's workers will be in the packaging area.

Sanderson Farms has applied with the state for a point discharge permit but is proceeding with plans as if Georgia will require a spray field for disposal of the plant's effluent. If granted, they could discharge treated effluent into a stream as they do in Mississippi.

The company is concerned about the environment, Director of Development Bob Billingsley said as he held up a clean effluent sample drawn from the plant's wastewater treatment facility, which also had no odor. The McComb facility is spitting distance from the Bogue Chitto River (a state recreation waterway) and a horse farm, and Sanderson Farms has an environmental expert on staff to make sure they dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" in that venue.

"You can't afford to have environmental problems these days," Billingsley said.

At the request of The Observer, Billingsley took a side trip to nearby broiler houses. Although the entourage had to don plastic booties over their shoes, the enclosed broiler houses are surprisingly cool, dark and clean. The 38-day-old chickens plump up on feed and are trained to take water from nipple attachments on pipes. The object, Billingsley said, is to fatten the broilers with the least amount of stress. The broiler houses have solid walls, which will also be the case in Moultrie.

Relations with McComb growers are very good, Billingsley said.

"This is our livelihood and theirs too. We have to work together," he said.

"Of 143 growers for McComb, all but one or two are happy with our relationship with them," McComb Production Manager Anthony DeLee said.

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