From Contract Chickens to Family-Owned Greenhouse

If you stepped onto JB Farm five years ago, you would have seen 56,000 chickens in their poultry houses. Farmers Paula and Dale Boles raised chickens in Caldwell County, North Carolina for one of the biggest poultry companies in the country.

They were contract farmers, producing meat birds on a large scale for a national company. The company dropped off day-old chicks and supplied their feed, but Paula and Dale were responsible for the other costs, including vaccinations and heating the chicken houses with propane. Paula says raising poultry on that scale wore them down day after day.  

We would get up in four in the morning and go through the houses and check things and then we would both be down there late at night,” Paula says. “We did that for five years until we were just both physically exhausted.”

They spent the rest of their days at full-time jobs. Dale worked as a mechanical engineer and Paula as a sales coordinator for a furniture hauling company. They did everything they could to keep the chickens healthy and turn a profit, but they say producing poultry this way was just not working for them.

“We invested close to half a million dollars by the time you figure the two houses and all the equipment and everything,” says Paula. “It’s almost like you’re an indentured servant.”

After years of struggling, they decided to cancel their contract. Paula says, “There were a lot of things in the contract to prevent you from doing that, but we were just really lucky.”

Paula and Dale researched crops that would give them more independence, greater financial return, and some relief from the time-consuming process of large-scale chicken production. They realized there might be new opportunities selling to local markets, so Dale used his engineering skills to transform the chicken houses into greenhouses for produce like tomatoes and peppers.

Heaters, fans, and even the computer that monitors static pressure have been repurposed for produce. Dale’s exceptional engineering skills made this transition possible, and so did the orientation of their chicken houses. Most chicken houses face east to west so the sun doesn’t shine into the sides and raise the temperature. But fortunately, the chicken houses at JB Farm were installed north to south, which is ideal for growing produce.

The greenhouse is now home to 600 cherry tomato plants and 700 sweet pepper plants, and Paula says that’s just the beginning. They started by growing the plants directly in soil, but plan to expand to hydroponic production, where plants are grown in nutrient-dense water instead of soil. After that, she says aquaponics are on the horizon. They plan to grow tilapia (a type of freshwater fish commonly found on restaurant menus) in a closed-loop system where the fish waste fertilizes the plants.

Paula now sells directly to the public instead of a national company. She stands behind the JB Farm booth at the Lenoir Downtown Farmers Market and delivers produce to two grocery stores in Hickory on her lunch hour. She still commutes 40 minutes to her office job, but hopes that there will be enough income for her to work full-time on the farm in the future.

Paula is amazed by the support they have received from the community as the farm transitions from production for global markets to producing food for local customers.

“When we work at the farmers markets, just to see the people that just love to come up and talk to you and just know that it’s coming from a local area, I think that is just kind of a culture thing we’re seeing.”

Aired 1/30/17

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