On April 12, 2020 deadly storms slashed across the South, killing at least 37 people and flattening homes and businesses, including Ron Gavin’s broiler operation near Soso, Miss.
“It was a direct hit. The tornado destroyed all eight of my broiler houses,” Gavin said. “To make matters worse, the houses were all full of birds that were about 10 days away from sale.”
Gavin says approximately 177,000 birds were on his farm when the storm struck. Workers were able to rescue about 69,000 birds from the debris and transported them to another farm. The rest were either killed by the storm or had to be euthanized.
Gavin said there was nothing to do but put on a brave face and get to work.
Year of challenges
Like Gavin, many poultry producers in Mississippi have had to muster up courage over the past year — particularly those who work in the broiler segment. In addition to production disruptions due to COVID-19 and weaker prices, several severe weather events over the past 12 months have caused extensive structural damage to operations across the state.
The series of tornados that swept through Gavin’s farm and the rest of southern Mississippi on Easter Sunday of 2020 damaged or destroyed nearly 100 broiler houses across the state. In February, another four broiler houses were destroyed as a result of collapsed roofs from accumulated ice and snow. Then, just a few weeks ago more commercial chicken houses in Wayne County, Miss. were demolished by a March tornado.
The winter storm also temporarily closed processing plants, delayed feed delivery and led to notably lower slaughter volumes that the USDA expects to last into April.
Mississippi is one of the top states in the nation for poultry production and poultry is the state’s number one agricultural commodity.
“No doubt it’s been a tough year for many growers with multiple challenges coming at us,” said Sean McDonald, who runs eight broiler houses near Laurel, Miss. He also serves as chairman of the Mississippi Poultry Association’s Grower Advisory Committee.
“Farmers are resilient, though” McDonald continued, “and I believe those affected by these tragedies will come back stronger.”
When Gavin thinks back to those devastating days immediately following the tornado that destroyed his poultry houses, he recalls the sheer amount of work that lay before him. There was debris removal and carcass disposal, and he also had to roundup and sell his cattle herd, as the storm had destroyed much of his fencing. But get to work he did.
In August construction began on six new 50’ x 500’ chicken houses. These houses are larger than his original eight. On January 12, exactly nine months after the storm, the new barns welcomed chickens back to the farm.
“It was a lot of work and required a lot of patience,” Gavin said. “When you go 11 months without a paycheck you’ve got to be patient and keep focused on what the end goal is.”
Gavin’s goal was to come back even better. When building the new barns, he added the latest technology as well as efficiency features like solar panels.
“I had considered adding solar panels prior to the storm, and figured this was the opportunity,” Gavin said. He added that a USDA grant along with state tax incentives helped offset the upfront installation costs. He said he’s already seeing big savings on his power bill.
“It may be a little early to determine an exact amount of savings, but they’re definitely working,” Gavin said. “I think solar is the future.”
“I also switched from propane to natural gas. That will be at least 50% savings on fuel. Those two things alone — solar panels and natural gas — should cut costs and increase income.”
“Thankful to be here”
When you visit Gavin’s farm today, you can still very clearly see the path of last year’s tornado. The remains of twisted, damaged trees extending to the horizon, reminding you of the severity of the storm. Houses and businesses can be rebuilt, but many things will forever be changed.
When asked what’s next for his operation, Gavin responded that he is happy for more days to farm.
“I am just thankful to be here, to work every day and continue doing what I love,” Gavin said. “Hopefully, by modernizing the operation, it will be more feasible for the next generation to keep it going.”
“I love this business. Obviously, I had a chance to get out when the storm hit, but I’d rather be doing this than anything else,” Gavin said.