CENTER, Texas - She wanted to get their children away from the city. He'd had this dream since high school, of raising chickens and staying close to home. And before they knew it, Rodney and Nancy Fisher had a government-backed loan and a contract with Pilgrim's Pride in their pocket for seven aging broiler houses on the north side of this small East Texas town.
By January 1998, the Fishers had closed the deal. By June, it had closed in on them.
The farm always was a project, no doubt about it. Pilgrim sent a list a page long of the repairs needed before the Fishers took over, cautioning that it did not include day-to-day maintenance and upgrades.
The couple bought a generator and an incinerator. For the chicken houses, equipment and maintenance, they had borrowed more than $460,000. Even after the work they'd done, the houses had problems.
The Fishers, who had worked on the farm for Rodney's cousin before buying it from him, felt up to the task.
``They wanted us bad,'' said Nancy Fisher, 36. ``They told us: 'We like what you all are doing. We want you to grow for us.' ``
By just the fourth flock of birds, all that had changed. Richard Pearce, broiler manager for Pilgrim's Nacogdoches, Texas, complex, visited on a day when, at many farms, birds began to die from soaring temperatures, the Fishers say. At their farm, the situation was even worse because the chickens were nearly grown, and dropping by the hundreds.
Several days later, the couple received a two-sentence letter from Pearce: They'd been cut off.
``We called, we begged, we pleaded,'' said Nancy. ``[Pearce] said the farm was too old. He said he didn't want us to put any money in it, and he said he wouldn't put birds in there for anybody else because it wasn't worth it.''
The Fishers hadn't just lost their contract. It appeared that they might never be able to sell the farm - at a time when Pilgrim was planning to expand capacity in the region by several hundred new houses. Tyson, Pilgrim's main competitor in the area, had different specifications for the houses it took on.
But an unusual thing happened. Gerald Green, credit manager for the U.S. Farm Service Agency's Shelby County office who had backed the farm loan with a 90 percent guarantee, asked Pilgrim why it wouldn't offer a contract to anyone for a farm that so recently had been deemed fit for use.
``We just wanted to know why six months ago [Pilgrim] said the farm was fine, and now it's not,'' said Green. ``We made the point that if you want this expansion to take place, if there's facilities out there, we want them to be fed first.''
It was a rare stand for a lender with more than half his portfolio in poultry loans, known to be among the most stable because the mortgage check often goes straight from company to bank. Said Green: ``Take the poultry industry out of Center, Texas, and the whole town would fold up.''
But Pilgrim reconsidered, and before long an interested buyer had a contract for the Fisher farm.
Pearce, the broiler manager, won't discuss the company's reversal or the Fishers' cutoff, except to say: ``Certainly it was based on a performance- and a management-type basis.'' In general, he said, bad conditions on a farm sometimes warrant moving quickly to terminate a contract.
``If [the Fishers] wish to visit with me further about the farm, I'll be happy to, but right now I really can't discuss it with anybody but them,'' Pearce said.
The new buyer would assume the main loan. But the Fishers say they still have bills from the repairs. And the transaction cost them two dwellings on the farm property as well. With their three children - Carol, 6, Stephanie, 10, and Wayne, 13 - they have moved across town to a rental house.
``It's just a tragic-type thing,'' said Dr. Andrew Jackson, Nancy's father and a Houston internist, who backed the Fishers' loan and said he lost $80,000 when the farm went under. ``Those two kids worked their butts off. This was their chance to do something worthwhile for their kids. They've lost everything they had.''
Rodney Fisher, 30 pounds lighter from the anger and stress of his brief chicken career, makes the trip each day down a dirt road to his 3 a.m. shift delivering milk. Steel feed tanks loom in the dark on either side of the road, symbols of a region's poultry promise and his personal failure.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun