Brittney and Matt Miller like to tell people they have 100,000 babies each week. Yes, every Thursday morning like clockwork, 100,000 quail peck their way out of minute speckled eggs and emerge cheeping and flapping at Manchester Farms.
“I just melt when I see them,” says Brittney, even though she has been witnessing the hatching of quail essentially all of her life; poultry farming runs as much in her veins as it does in Bill Odom, her father, who officially started the Manchester Farms quail operation in 1974.
Bill earned his degree in poultry science at Clemson University, and Brittney and Steven Odom, her brother, followed suit. Brittney says her father affectionately called her “Wart” growing up, because he teased that she was always there — whether he had to check the quail in the barns or work in the office. “It’s in my DNA,” she says. “I remember my parents talking about quail over the dinner table, while we were in the car, while we were on trips. Now, all our kids hear is Matt and me talking about quail over the dinner table, in the car … ”
Their daughter, Maddie, 14, has expressed that she wants to be an ophthalmologist or a quail farmer. And their son, Jack, 11, wants to be a baseball player. “We told them they have plenty of time to decide,” Brittney says, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if they choose this. It gets in your blood, and we love what we do.”
From Hunting to Farming
Bill Odom first worked at Campbell Soup Company, overseeing flocks of poultry used in food products. According to Brittney, he went against the grain by formulating a process of raising birds for consumption by using all natural feeding and raising methods void of hormones. The company was impressed and decided to promote him to a facility in New Jersey. “But my dad is all Southern and told them he would pass,” says Brittney.
He began raising and training quail for hunting. Neighbors and friends inquired about some of the birds available for eating. The rest is history. “It’s really an all-American, home-grown story,” she adds. “He literally started raising quail in our backyard.”
However, Bill soon learned that in order to make a profit, he needed to raise a large volume of quail. Bobwhite quail, which are typically wild, are prone to aggression toward one another, to diseases and to anxiety, making them fine for the sport of hunting, but not necessarily for raising in high volume to be consumed as a gourmet entree in a fine restaurant or as a special home-cooked meal. Pharaoh or Coturnix quail, however, have been bred for thousands of years, are docile, grow quickly, and provide exceptionally nutritious meat and eggs. These quail, in fact, were a staple during Biblical times; hieroglyphs in Egypt even bear their image.
Manchester Farms takes pride in raising quail that eat only all natural foods made with quality grains, minerals, and vitamins — even probiotics. The only extra is an anti-parasitic. “It’s very important to us not to use any antibiotics,” shares Brittney. “We only feed them what humans can eat.”
In addition, no genetic testing takes place to determine which hens to use as breeders. Instead, new breeding stock is chosen every few weeks. “We do it the old fashioned way,” says Brittney. “We pick up the birds and hold them. We feel them to decide which are the largest.”
While most poultry production facilities have contract growers that hatch and raise poultry separate from a production plant, Manchester manages all of its poultry product — except for one facility — on the hundreds of acres it owns. Naturally fertilized eggs lie on incubator trays that tilt every 30 minutes. Quail are raised for five weeks in seven 200-foot-long “grow-out” barns that are spacious, well lit, and clean. Brittney explains that the young tiny fluffs of feathers fly and play in a healthy environment and are supplied unlimited feed and water. The couple points out that a quiet quail is a happy, healthy quail, and theirs are peaceful. At least 90 percent of the hatchlings typically survive the first week of life and begin to thrive into maturity.
After five weeks, the majority go to the processing plant in Hopkins where they are humanely terminated and packaged into a variety of products that ship nationwide: semi-boneless, bone-in whole, halves, breasts, legs, wings, and bacon-wrapped (a favorite). Some are marinated and ready to throw on a grill. The average weight is 5.5 ounces, and they sell approximately 4 million birds annually. Their website also includes recipes, such as Matt’s Lemon Rosemary Quail.
Nothing is wasted. Quail droppings are composted, and composted fertilizer will soon be available for sale in bulk to nurseries, landscapers, and in bags to consumers. The hatched eggshells are also composted. Blood, bones, and visceral material is frozen and sold to gourmet dog food processors. Boxes are recycled.
“We have a very small amount of waste for the landfill each week,” says Brittney.
Every bird is carefully tracked regarding its flock, the weather conditions, and its environment. “It’s all very statistical,” says Brittney. In addition, Manchester Farms’ facilities are Global Food Safety Initiative certified, meaning the company goes above and beyond the cleanliness, organization, and processing standards set forth by the USDA.
Bill delved into grocery stores years ago as his first main marketing opportunity. With the improving economy, he has expanded his market to include restaurants because chefs are interested in quail gracing their plates. Some chefs want the very freshest quail, so they request that the birds be shipped via FedEx or Delta.
Millennials especially, says Brittney, are foodies and want to try items that are different from those with which they might have grown up. “Whenever my kids’ friends come over, they want our bacon-wrapped quail!”
A few years ago, Manchester Farms got into the quail egg business. Laying quail hens reside in three-room, condo-like pens that are temperature controlled. The hens lay eggs daily, and the eggs roll down an incline and are collected.
“We grow a million eggs a month,” says Matt. He explains that the nutritional value is three to four times that of a chicken egg. They have 140 percent of B1 compared to 50 percent in a chicken egg, for example. Bill and Janet, his wife, began religiously eating a few quail eggs a day a few years ago and swear to improvements in health.
“The Asian markets in New York and on the West Coast especially eat a lot of quail eggs,” says Matt. “And, apparently, Brazil is one of the largest consumers of quail eggs.”
The Millers share that the economic slowdown affected their company; however, since 2012, sales have increased. They have had to diversify somewhat in order to increase profits and maintain some employees’ workloads by providing an assembly of items such as pork chop biscuits for Bojangles, bacon-wrapped shrimp for Costco, and pigs in a blanket for Harris Teeter, among other products. With a skilled research and development chef, they are testing other products in a fully equipped test kitchen, and they are currently pursuing a contract with a large retailer for pre-packed, ready-to-heat-and-eat meal kits. A side business is a pine and hardwood tree farm. And, another future goal is to have a teaching barn where children can learn about the joys of farming and understand the farming connection with the food they eat daily. “Most children today just think their food comes directly from a grocery store!” quips Brittney.
Steven, Brittney’s brother, sold his share of the business in 2013, and Brittney became the sole owner of the business with Matt, her husband. Brittney worked away from the family business in pharmaceutical sales and as the manager of a private club to obtain outside experience. She worked for a while in New Jersey, and then she moved to Colorado where she met Matt, who was a snow mobile guide. They married and moved back to South Carolina in 2005. Matt wholeheartedly embraced the idea of raising quail, and the couple agrees that working together suits them. Each has his-and-her responsibilities, but the two also collaborate on much.
Bill, although officially retired, is still involved on a regular basis. Brittney smiles when she says they are in contact several times a day; he stops by the office and the plant to keep up to date, and he is often in the barns checking on chicks. “My parents are still on the board and still love the business as much as I do,” she says.
Even Matt’s sister-in-law, Angie Miller, is involved as Manchester’s marketing coordinator from a satellite office in Matt’s native hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
Birds of a Feather
Both Brittney and Matt agree that Manchester would not succeed without their 100 dedicated employees. Carolyn Brown, the office manager at the plant for the past 20 years, grew up with Brittney. Most employees, including Brittney and Matt, wear many hats. “You have to have a passion for farming,” says Brittney, “so we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who love this business like we do.”
Turnover is low. Many have been at Manchester in some capacity for at least 10 years or more. Some are third generation workers. “These folks are family, and any way we can give back to them, we do,” say Brittney. “It’s not a glamorous job, but if employees feel they are loved and appreciated, it makes them want to come back and to do quality work. We try to show them how much they are appreciated.”
Matt adds, “When we’re up, we provide increases for them, but they know that in tight years we have to tighten our belts. A few years ago we had an especially good year, and we were able to take 25 on a cruise and give significant bonuses to others. We wish we could do things like that more often.”
The Millers agree that even though quail farming is difficult, and success teeters precariously on such elements as the weather, power, insurance costs — especially since the Affordable Care Act — and disease, it is a business worth the risks. “We’re not buying the company jet yet,” says Brittney with a laugh, “but Matt and I walked into it easier than my parents did; they had the disaster of the day and the crisis of the week, but we are in a position to move forward and try new things to see what works.”