Poultry production continues to be one of the largest agricultural industries in Louisiana, second only to forestry in terms of income provided.
My story is about the broiler growers during the 1960s as I was growing up. I had a small involvement with them. Natchitoches Parish had growers in Gorum, Flat Woods, Mora, Janie and other communities.
Growers built houses of various sizes to hold chickens ranging from 6,000 – 20,000. This was a year-round business with only two weeks between growing cycles. This time was used to clean all the chips and shavings used for bedding out of the houses, clean and repair the automatic feeders and watering system, and put down new bedding. There was no time to waste before the baby chicks were delivered, usually by bus in cardboard boxes. They were then released into the houses and their nine week growing cycle would begin.
My Uncle Dempsey Johnson was the primary supplier of feed for the growers as well as the one responsible for getting the grown broilers to market, which at that time was J & M Poultry in Alexandria. My father Harvis worked with his brother Dempsey for a while, and when they were older Uncle Dempsey’s sons John Dempsey and Dewain joined in the family business as suppliers as well as growers themselves.
For a while feed bins were located along the railroad tracks in Chopin where the feed was delivered by rail. Uncle Dempsey would load out his trucks with feed and deliver to the growers. Nine weeks later he would arrange for the grown broilers to be caught and brought to market. It was a well planned cycle as there was always one grower shipping his broilers to market and another receiving their baby chickens.
My involvement is where the fun part begins. What fourteen or fifteen year old boy does not want to crawl around at night among thousands of sleeping chickens, in the manure and dust for four hours to earn five dollars? Spending money, Yea!!
This was an event we all looked forward to. It was like a picnic at night. I have fond memories of my Aunt Wanda having several tables set out loaded with sandwiches, cake, cookies, and gallons of kool-aid. We worked hard but had fun. Each of the growers would provide this setting when it came time for their broilers to be caught.
As I recall there was a crew of about four young boys and three adults who worked with the loading of crates on the truck. One boy would be among the sleeping chickens crawling around and catching three in one hand and four in the other and handing them off to three boys going back and forth from inside the house to the truck where 14 would be placed in each crate. The boys would alternate catching so that, at the end of the night, the four of us needed to be hosed down with water because we were covered with manure and feathers and smelled pretty rank.
Once the 6,000 – 9,000 chickens were loaded, Uncle Dempsey or one of his drivers would head out to J & M Poultry in Alexandria were they would await their turn to be unloaded. Houses of over 9,000 usually were caught on two consecutive nights.
As I stated earlier each of the boys made from five to seven dollars for our four hours working in chicken manure and feathers. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to do this. That was big bucks to us. It provided spending money and a bit of independence at our young age. After our work was done it was almost morning and we would hurry home for a decent bath and get dressed, just in time to catch the School Bus for another day of lessons. It was a long day but very satisfying because we had money in our pockets.
I am still in contact with some of my friends and partners in chicken manure from those years long ago. I know that we all were better men during our lives because of the work ethic that our parents instilled in us.