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Hot chicks in Steuben:

July 21st, 2016

Miller Poultry expands as sales of specialty chicken products heat up

By Aimee Ambrose | Fort Wayne Business Weekly

With sales of its niche chicken brand taking flight, Miller Poultry in Orland is meeting demand by expanding production, adding jobs and growing a network of suppliers.

“We have enjoyed and been blessed with a large amount of growth,” said Sally Durbin, administrative coordinator.

Miller specializes in producing poultry with labels like organic, GMO-free and antibiotic-free.

The family-run company saw business in both processing and sales grow by about 20 percent in the past year and a half, bringing the processing output up to more than 600,000 chickens per week, said Galen Miller, company owner and CEO.

“That’s about 1.5 percent the size of Tyson (Food Inc.’s) poultry operation,” Miller said, illustrating how his business remains a small niche player in the poultry market.

Something to crow about

The recent growth has helped Miller Poultry become one of Steuben County’s largest employers.

The company now has about 750 workers after hiring nearly 150 new employees over the past 18 months. Many new jobs resulted from the addition of a second shift at its processing plant this year.

“We’ve increased the number of growers that are producing chickens here locally and regionally,” Durbin said.

The business also launched a breeder project in June. The plan involves signing contracts with 52 area farms – several of them run by Amish families – to supply poultry, and having those farms match the company’s standards for raising chickens.

Miller’s brand is based on producing chickens that were raised on feeds with no antibiotics and no genetically modified organisms. The company launched its non-genetically modified organism grain program last December. Organically raised chickens account for about 20 percent of the production volume.

Labor market plucked

The area’s workforce might not be able to sustain Miller Poultry’s growth for much longer.

The company is exploring the possibility of moving part of its operation. It has sites in southern Michigan, northwest Ohio and elsewhere in Indiana under consideration, in order to get closer to more skilled workers, Miller said. He’s looking closely at a potential job expansion to hit southern Michigan.

With county unemployment rates at below 4 percent in northeast Indiana as of May, according to Workforce Development department data, the labor market is tight, and Miller needs workers with the right backgrounds, especially those with technical and maintenance experience to service automated equipment.

“It’s very difficult at this point in time to fill positions,” he said.

Burmese residents in Fort Wayne, some of whom have food processing experience, fill many of the company’s production jobs.

“We’re grateful the Burmese community has come to our rescue,” he said. “They are a very significant portion of our employment.”

A Burmese employee on staff in the company’s human resources department gets credit for reaching out and recruiting other Burmese workers to Miller, Durbin said.

While the business continues to operate in Orland, it will continue to serve the market for specialty poultry.

The company relies on a variety of techniques, from standard industry practices to unique methods, to produce chicken in order to appeal to different tastes among consumers.

Techniques include using air chilling and water chilling to cool products off during production. Air chilling is mostly practiced in Europe and Canada and, while it’s a slower, less efficient cooling process, it’s also more environmentally friendly because it requires less water, Miller said.

“Because of some of those unique production elements, we’ve seen a fair amount of demand increase over the last few years,” he said.

Miller Poultry products are sold at supermarket chains such as Kroger, Whole Foods and Super Valu, as well as independent grocery businesses.