CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — West Virginia produces 2.2 million chickens every week, making it the state’s largest agricultural export, yet a recent survey shows that a significant portion of West Virginia poultry growers are approaching retirement with no one picked out to inherit the farm after their departure.

A recent statewide census published by Orion Strategies and in consultation with the WVU Extension service, the WV Farm Bureau and the WV Poultry Association showed that over half of the state’s poultry growers are at retirement age, and more than one-third of those growers are planning to retire in the next five years.

In Hardy County, which produces 43% of the state’s poultry, 59% of growers are 60 years of age or older, and 65% of growers with plans to retire say they will do so in the next five years.

“In West Virginia, poultry production is our number one agricultural commodity, and usually we sit anywhere from number 11 down to number 20 as far as ranked states in the U.S. for poultry production,” said Dr. Joe Moritz, the state poultry extension specialist at WVU. Moritz earned his Ph.D. in animal science at Kansas State University and has been a WVU faculty member for 20 years.

“It’s the number one protein consumed in the United States and in the world, we consume about 112 lbs per capita in the U.S., so it’s extremely important to nourish our society,” Moritz said.

Moritz believes poultry is preferentially consumed for three reasons:

  • It’s affordable – “There’s a lot of scientific data that goes into poultry production, so it allows poultry to be more affordable.”
  • It’s convenient – “We go to supermarkets and there are many ready-to-cook, ready-to-eat products, and the poultry industry, in general, has been very innovative relative to other industries in creating those products that allow for a very fast preparation for lunch and dinner.”
  • It’s nutritious – “In general, it’s a high protein product in a low-calorie package.”

According to Moritz, West Virginia has historically been a large poultry producer, with many current farmers being fourth or fifth-generation poultry growers, like a kind of family tradition. However what will often happen is children brought up in a farming environment will seek out an occupation in a different line of work, and while some do come back after a few years, it doesn’t make up for the growing number of producers approaching retirement.

“That’s something that we’ve been aware of for a long time and Isn’t necessarily unique to West Virginia. But I think that, in my role in Extension and my role in education, perhaps we need to focus more on helping farmers appreciate better succession plans,” Moritz said.

Unfortunately, simply bringing in entirely new growers comes with its own problems. For example, just to get one poultry house costs around $850,000, and many farms typically want at least two of these houses. So right off the bat, farms are looking at a cost of close to $2 million dollars if they are seriously getting into poultry, and that level of debt can scare off young growers.

Despite the high cost and growing number of retirement-age farmers, Moritz feels that the poultry industry is so large it isn’t in danger of going away entirely.

“I almost think that we can’t fail, because there has been so much investment and infrastructure. In Hardy County, we have the Pilgrim’s Pride processing plant, we’ve got hatcheries, we’ve got a feed mill, and there’s a lot invested into those entities, so we’re gonna have to keep the wheels turning.”

However, Moritz believes that if there isn’t enough local interest in poultry, the industry could see more outside investment and corporate farms come in to fill the void.

In the survey, former president of the WV Poultry Association Daryl See said poultry contributes over $100 million to the state in annual payroll and support to local economies, making it a vital resource to the West Virginia economy.