Courtesy of Bill Prestage
84 | owner, Prestage Farms
Not true: The urban legend that turkeys stare at the sky until they drown when it rains, prompting indoor production. Rather, increased productivity of enclosed barns offsets the capital costs, something that Prestage helped pioneer nearly 40 years ago.
This year, Clinton-based Prestage Farms and Prestage Foods will process about 5.5 million turkeys and a similar number of hogs for consumers worldwide. Industry analysts credit the companies’ founder with innovations to improve nutrition and standardize farming and processing methods. The turkey and pork industries now produce a combined $3 billion annually, trailing the $3.6 billion chicken industry in N.C. agribusiness.
Prestage is known for more than the sheer numbers his 2,800 employees and 475 contract farmers nationwide will grind out this year: More than 1 billion pounds of pork and 600 million pounds of turkey. That works out to 10,000 hogs a day and 50,000 turkeys a week, not counting tens of thousands of turkeys his company raises in South Carolina.
Turkey production has become much more effecient since Prestage’s early days in the industry. It only takes 2.3 pounds of food to produce a pound of meat, down from the 3 pounds of feed it took three decades ago.
“We’ve gotten a lot more efficient, both by nutrition and the environment the animals are in,” says Prestage, the son of a Michigan beer wholesaler who moved south to partner with eastern North Carolina chicken-and-hog producer Ottis Carroll, then struck out on his own a year after Carroll died in 1981. “The gains have been threefold: genetics, nutrition and environment.”
In its first year, Prestage Farms had two dozen employees and produced 8 million pounds of turkey. Now, the businesses include plants, production operations and feed mills in the Carolinas, Iowa, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Clinton, which is 65 miles south of Raleigh, has the world’s largest hatchery capable of hatching 650,000 poults a week.
“North Carolina is the best state we do business in,” Prestage says, which he credits to an unparalleled rural road system. “We’re scattered all over North Carolina, and our employees drive trucks to deliver feed, pick up animals and so on, all on rural roads.”
Because of the scope of its industrial-scale farms, North Carolina struggles with animal-waste disposal. Prestage defends the lagoon system, which stores liquefied waste for future use as field fertilizer, and turkey litter, which is similarly used on feed crops such as corn and soybeans.
“You look at the hurricanes we’ve had, and there’s been a lot of havoc but hardly any spills from the lagoons,” Prestage says. “You can’t say that about the municipal lagoons,” several of which have overflowed. Prestage Farms has a plant that burns turkey litter to generate steam, but Prestage isn’t impressed. “It’s a high-dollar investment and not a great use of your money.”
Humane treatment of slaughter animals matters to Prestage, who points to the heated floors and greater sun exposure at a new Iowa plant. “We design these buildings for people’s comfort,” he says. “If people are comfortable, we know the animals will be, too.”
He’s also paying attention to demands for healthier meat. “We’re using very limited or no antibiotics. People don’t want antibiotics in the food they’re going to feed their families.”
For Prestage, family is important at a time when rivals are mainly public companies or owned by foreign investors. Now 84 and an avid quail hunter who prides himself on his bird dogs, he has shifted most management duties to his three sons, in their 60s, and nine grandchildren.
“They’ve all been raised in the business, and they seem to truly love agribusiness,” Prestage says. “When you run a business like this, people are your greatest asset, so I hope they carry on.
— Edward Martin