FreightWaves Flashback 1963: Baby chicks⁠ — big export business

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each Friday, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the May 1963 edition of The Florida Journal of Commerce.

JACKSONVILLE — A few years ago the chicken and egg business was a sideline to farming. Generally a pet project of the farmer’s wife, the profits derived were considered her “pin money.”

Today, the chicken and egg trade is big business, not only locally but internationally. Modern, scientifically designed hatcheries with automated equipment have taken over where formerly the hen, the bare light bulb, and the box under the kitchen coal stove held sway.

Mortality rates in hatching chicks have dropped with the new incubators and hatchers; scientific cross-breeding has resulted in healthier egg-laying, broiler and breeder chicks — each type for a specific purpose; feeding formulas developed by college-trained agricultural experts have replaced the handfuls of corn and table scraps that used to be tossed into the chicken yard; and today’s chicken probably never even comes near the dirt floor of a chick yard — much less the back door of a farmhouse.

More likely, the fluffy chick so carefully incubated and hatched is speeding on its way to a new home in Haiti, Colombia, or British Guiana before it is 24 hours old. 

Oak Crest Hatcheries, Inc. in Jacksonville typifies the space age approach to the chicken and egg business.

The firm and its affiliated corporations here and in DeFuniak Springs, hatch between eight and nine million chicks each year from eggs provided by their own breeder hens which are boarded at farms throughout Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

One affiliated corporation is readying a $150,000 feed mill in Hawthorne which will turn out 20,000 pounds of feed per hour. Another provides the specially constructed 21-foot body trucks which carry the delicate, hours-old chicks to waiting planes in climatized comfort.

Still another affiliate has the dealership for the fully electric, automated Robbins and hatchers such as are used in the Oak Crest operations.

F. Brooks Herman is president of the operations which gross $2.1 million in sales annually. Nearly one-half of this business is done in the Central and South American countries and the Caribbean islands.

Oak Crest got into the export business when Herman started to work with the Methodist missions here and in Cuba. Soon the U.S. government encouraged increased exportation of their chicks, and today, their slogan, “Buy the Best-Buy Oak Crest,” is known throughout the Latin Americas.

Housed in neat brick buildings in rural Jacksonville, Oak Crest Hatcheries looks more like a light industry complex than a part of the farming business.

Wood-paneled offices greet the visitors. Secretaries pound away at typewriters, and there isn’t anyone in sight who is clad in suspender-type overalls and floppy galoshes. The uniform is typically executive with white shirts and subdued ties the order of the day.

The hatchery itself, connected by a covered walkway to the office building, is connected in a neat, odorless concrete block building. Not even a stray feather is in sight to recall the old time chicken house. In the incubation room a series of Robbins incubators stand in neat rows. Inside each one are tilted trays packed with fertile eggs. Automatically, the machines maintain the temperature and humidity scientifically determined best for this 18 day portion of the 21 day incubation period.

Each incubator also turns its egg trays every three hours to prevent the embryo from sticking to its shell. Oak Crest has the capacity to incubate 900,000 eggs at one time.

The final three days required for hatching eggs are spent in the Robbins hatchers located in the adjoining room. There, in lidded wire mesh trays, the eggs are automatically kept at 98.5° temperature with 70 percent humidity for the hatching process itself.

Careful, detailed records are kept on every batch of eggs hatched. This paperwork alone is considerable when you consider that nearly 190,000 chicks are hatched every week.

Three types of chicks are available from Oak Crest Hatcheries — H & N White Leghorns for eggs; Rhode Island Reds and Sex Links for both eggs and table; and strictly meat broilers.

Minutes after hatching, the tiny chicks are packed in compartmented, corrugated boxes and loaded into heated Oak Crest trucks for the nine hour run to Miami International Airport.

Their arrival there is timed closely to the departure of the plane which will carry the baby chicks to their destination. Under normal conditions, Oak Crest chicks reach their new Latin American homes within 36 hours after leaving the hatchery.

Many things can interfere with the smoothness of the operation, however. During the incubation stage, the embryo will die within 20 minutes if the electric current supplying the incubators and hatchers is cut off by a thunderstorm or other power failure. Consequently, a 100 k.w. generator occupies a prominent place in the hatchery building. 

Purchased for nearly $10,000, the generator has already paid for itself. Twice the power has failed with 50,000 to 100,000 chicks valued at 10 cents each ready to hatch. A quick cut-in of the auxiliary generator prevented the loss of several thousands of dollars in orders.

Bad weather, fog and tropical storms which affect flying conditions also can play havoc with the delicate day-old chicks en-route to their destinations abroad.

Oak Crest also provides consultation services for its customers, and often aids them in obtaining their equipment.

Of customers abroad, Herman Jones, vice president of Oak Crest, says, “They really want to know what is wrong with their operations. Very conscientious, they are not handicapped by fixed ideas. Consequently, they are easier to teach the new methods of the poultry business.”

Although the firm advertises in three U.S. Spanish-language magazines, Oak Crest feels that personal contact with their foreign customers is best.

Brooks regularly travels the Central and South American routes, while Jones visits the Caribbean islands.

Three years ago, Jones visited an island where Oak Crest had had no previous business. Now, 90 percent of the island’s chicks are bought from Oak Crest. People to people contact has proved to be their best business ally.

Both Herman and Jones speak enough Spanish to be understood, and often their customers visit the Jacksonville office to look over the Oak Crest operations. Says Jones, “The reasons we have prospered are our complete honesty and the quality of our chicks.”

Completion in the export business is stiff, particularly with hatcheries located closer to Miami, but Oak Crest exports are increasingly steady.

“Some business abroad is almost a dare — a challenge,” Jones commented. “But, even though sometimes it is hard work, the business is interesting and you meet all kinds of people.”

In outlining some dissenting features, Jones advises staying apart from Latin American politics because of the constantly changing governments.

Pay through U.S. government agencies is sometimes slow, taking eight to ten weeks. Even more difficult is taking foreign money out of the foreign country because of the conversion factors. Consequently, Oak Crest has some bank accounts in Latin American banks.

Rush orders which do not allow for the incubation period necessary to complete a new order are an occasional problem, as are cancellations of orders overnight. These problems are not limited to the export trade, applying to an even greater degree locally.

Jones has often found that foreign rules are not always too clear, and success or failure often depends upon seeing the one right man in the right position.

The nine men who own Oak Crest Enterprises subscribe to 18 monthly publications in the poultry field, and they attend five conventions annually to keep up with the latest poultry developments.

Each man is an expert in his field.

Oak Crest helps in 4-H poultry judging and sponsors the poultry medals for all of Florida’s 4-H clubs. It is their desire that these youngsters see the great potential for them in agricultural work.

Jones is currently the president of the Florida Hatchery and Breeder Association, has lectured at the Export-Import Trade Seminars sponsored by the Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce, and was a Jaycee Award winner in 1962.