BROADWAY, VA. -- Here, where the high school mascot is a gobbler; where diners at the Broadway Quick Lunch can choose among eight $3 entrees, three of which are chicken dishes; and where feed silos blend with the small-town surroundings, Otis and Sondra DeLawder are gambling their life's earnings on chickens.
"Our friends tell us we're either crazy or gutsy," said Sondra DeLawder, 44, whose mother inspected poultry. "I'm not sure which it is myself."
"I swore I'd never work in a chicken house," she said.
In a time that finds many couples working to minimize financial risk, the DeLawders are embarking on what Otis DeLawder said "could be the biggest mistake of our lives" -- raising 450,000 broiler chickens.
With the national economy grinding along in recession and many families cutting expenditures to the bone, Otis DeLawder has quit his truck-driving job. The couple sold their home, bought 40 acres of farm land and have gone $400,000 in debt.
But the state's multibillion-dollar poultry industry, whose heart lies in the Shenandoah Valley area around Broadway and surrounding Rockingham County, is one of the state's few economic bright lights.
WLR Foods Inc. and Rocco Foods, two valley mainstays, have announced plans to gradually double the size of some operations, a move that will boost the region's chicken processing output to 4.4 million birds a week, according to industry observers and company projections. Those numbers also reflect plans for expanded operations at Tyson Foods and Perdue Inc.
Night shifts will be added early next year at key valley processing plants, which employ about half the 10,400 people statewide who work in the facilities. Some of the expansion is linked to increased demand as families cut back on food costs.
Americans will eat 70 pounds of chicken per person this year, compared with 68 pounds of beef, said Bill Weaver, a poultry extension specialist and professor at Virginia Tech. "If you throw in turkey, you can add 18 pounds to that," he said.
While poultry firms will be investing millions of dollars in local economies at processing, feed and hatchery facilities, the companies have left the risk of raising the chickens to individual farmers.
That's where the DeLawders and other private investors come in. Rocco and WLR estimate they'll need 200 new broiler houses in the next few years. At more than $100,000 each, the 400-foot-long, hangarlike structures are highly mechanized indoor feed lots.
For the DeLawders, who have contracted with WLR, the venture has drained them of virtually all their assets. But Otis DeLawder, 50, is convinced the couple made the right decision.
"You're never going to get anywhere if you don't take a chance and get something started," he said, adding that he grew up on a poultry farm in West Virginia.
The recent expansion announcements helped soothe the anguish over the couple's decision more than a year ago to go with what Otis DeLawder said was "not much more than a gut feeling that we could make it work. I'd seen that others had done well and stuck with it over the years and thought so could we."
The die was cast in December when he climbed down from behind the wheel of his Volvo tractor-trailer for the last time, leaving behind him 30 years on the road.
"I started hauling chickens before I was 20," he said. Now, he's turned his $75,000 rig over to a contract driver and works part-time setting up mobile homes, a back-breaking job that at least keeps him fit.
A month ago, the couple sold their rambler on the outskirts of Broadway to generate more cash toward a bank loan that will finance three broiler houses, each of which will hold about 25,000 birds at a time.
The flocks turn over every six weeks and annual payments will run close to $45,000 a year on the 15-year loan. Feed and fuel costs add thousands more in expenses.
"We're renting back our own home now for $20 a day," Otis DeLawder said. "It's a strange feeling after 13 years."
At current prices, he figures they can net about $21,000 a year from the operation. He has land enough to expand if demand continues. But a sudden shift in strategy by WLR, an outbreak of disease or some other calamity could prove ruinous.
"I'm not looking to get rich," he said. "I'd just like something that we could retire on and build a new house someday."
The key, said Weaver at Virginia Tech, is proper management. "It's a tightly controlled industry. Farmers get basically the same chickens and the same feed but some operators always end up doing better than someone else.
"You just have to be a good manager," he said.