Some growers happy with 'the real good money'


One thing is sure: Hank Thornes is high on Perdue. Fresh from one of the best years he's had, the 66-year-old Stockton farmer sounds like he did a decade ago, when he and his wife, Faye, were named the Salisbury company's top growers on the Delmarva Peninsula. That's when a smiling Hank Thornes appeared in ads in such publications as the Salisbury Daily Times, under the headline: "This Is Where the Real Good Money Is."

Eleven years later, the Thorneses believe it still is -- even though the newest of their five chicken houses is 20 years old. They are happy with their company, happy with chickens. They are not happy with the growers they view as a complaining minority, the ones inviting government to ruin an industry that has sent their daughter to college and put a shiny boat in the back yard. In a good year, the couple can make $40,000 to $50,000 after expenses.

"They have really buttered our bread," Faye Thornes said of the poultry industry. "I sympathize with the people that are for government aid. Maybe some of the people think they're doing well [at management], and they're not."

While he says he makes a fine living just growing chickens, Hank Thornes acknowledges that many people do not -- some despite their best efforts. He has tried to help a few friends who grow for other companies and is puzzled at times over why they don't do better.

And while growing chickens often is described as part-time work for full-time pay, he concedes it is in fact full-time work if a grower is to succeed: "If you're working away from home, you can't be as good as some who stay at home."

To call Hank Thornes obsessive is to understate his attitude toward the birds that spend their six weeks of life under his wing. He lives and breathes broilers, his head filled with new brews for medication, temperature-modulation techniques, gadgets to buy. He is near-superstitious about illness, even avoiding a trip to Hersheypark in Pennsylvania after hearing that chickens in the area had contracted avian flu.

Of the young birds, he said: "It's a baby. You've got to treat it like a baby."

Their poultry operation began in 1969 with one house, which Faye Thornes ran while her husband worked as superintendent of the Golden Pride processing plant down the road.

Their first flock of 22,500 birds fared horribly, no other word for it. For one thing, the roof leaked. In those days, service people for Whittington, a small, local poultry company, paid the top grower first and worked down the list, with the lowest performers waiting anxiously into the evening for the bad news.

"We sat here till 7 or 8 o'clock at night when he came up here with that settlement check," Faye Thornes recalled. "It was $72. And I cried and cried. Here we had spent all this money. I hated those chickens."

But slowly, things improved. Faye Thornes steeled herself to kill the biddies that wouldn't make it. Chicken houses cost much less then, and the family paid their loans off early, a fact the Thorneses acknowledge figured prominently in their ability to make a good living growing chickens. Around the time the Golden Pride plant closed in 1979, the Thorneses began growing for Perdue.

Today, Hank's only business worries are directed at those who would pile environmental and contractual rules onto an industry that might one day pack up and move out.

"If these companies aren't run off, the Shore will be OK," he said. "If they are, this Shore'll be ruined."

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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