Mainstream meets new age

Nestled in the Lebanon Valley in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country lies the town of Fredericksburg, PA (population 1,140), the coincidental home of antibiotic-free, all natural chicken in North America. Fredericksburg plays host to not one but three processors of these premium poultry products.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Farmers Pride Inc. is sincerely flattered, though the presence of two followers in the segment is more a point of irritation. On the other hand, Farmers Pride's Bell & Evans brand is the category leader, and competition from mainstream food companies-local competitor BC Natural has cross-ownership ties to Swift & Company-suggests natural poultry has made the transition from niche product to established segment.

The natural and organic foods movement used to be dismissed as a phenomenon of former hippies; in fact, it's fueled by long-time industry players who likely would have been squeezed from the market if they competed head-to-head with commodity suppliers like Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride. Scott Sechler, Farmers Pride's chairman and president, grew up on an area livestock farm and had a bird's eye view of yield-driven changes by growers. Convinced he could realize similar yields with birds reared on a more wholesome diet, Sechler began lining up growers to execute his concept soon after he acquired Farmers Pride in 1984.

"I remember visiting a plant in the 1960s that smelled of fish, and my dad explained it was the fishmeal they fed the birds," he recalls. "Then I noticed the introduction of antibiotics, which soon was running berserk. People didn't realize that these practices added so much cost." Recognizing an untapped demand for higher quality products, he began organizing the infrastructure that now supports not only his facility but also the others in Fredericksburg. It also helps explain why Pennsylvania is home to half a dozen independent hatcheries, a vanishing breed in today's poultry business.

"We have a big infrastructure of growers, including some of our own employees, that are not owned by us," Sechler reflects. "We're tickled by all these partnership deals. They all make money, and everybody is happy."

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