BROADWAY, VA. -- Poultry producers here in the Shenandoah Valley historically have rendered those parts of the chicken considered inedible -- the head, intestines and feet -- into chicken feed.
But on a sales trip to Hong Kong four years ago, Andy T. Schutz, export sales manager for Rockingham Poultry Inc., discovered that chicken feet are considered a staple -- if not a delicacy -- of the Chinese diet.
Schutz returned and persuaded his company to redesign its processing equipment so that the feet of the chicken, he prefers to call them paws, could be packaged for sale, along with wings, breasts and legs.
"Rockingham chicken paws" were first shipped overseas in the summer of 1987. Since then, sales of chicken feet have lit up cash registers in Broadway.
Last month, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Virginia processors exported 764 tons of chicken feet. Chicken feet sell for about the price of leg quarters, or about 30 cents a pound.
That translates into gross sales of more than $450,000 a month, not chicken feed by any standard.
Although exact figures are withheld for proprietary reasons, it is believed that about 600 tons of the Virginia total come from three Rockingham plants here and across the mountain in West Virginia.
Other exporters include Rocco Chickens of Harrisonburg and several Tysons-Holly Farms plants.
"We're packing every pound we can get," Schutz said, "and that's not nearly enough."
The sales success of chicken feet contributed to Rockingham's recent decision to double the size of its plant in Moorefield, W.Va., where the bulk of the chickens are packaged for Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast-food outlets.
Schutz visited China this spring and found that "the Chinese eat the paws four or five times a day, from breakfast to supper."
China's 1 billion-plus residents devour chicken feet in a variety of ways, from flavoring for soups in peasant homes to snacks in outdoor markets to elegant dim sum in three-star hotel restaurants.
So do residents of many Caribbean islands, Schutz said, although American firms cannot export chicken feet there because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects food products, still considers chicken feet a waste product, and Caribbean governments have not approved their importation.
The Caribbean would be a more lucrative market than China, Schutz said, because Jamaicans and other islanders "want the whole foot," up to the second joint, for stews and soups.
The Chinese only eat up to the first joint, which is why Schutz refers to the feet as paws.
American food processors can export uninspected food as long as the receiving country signs a statement acknowledging that it realizes that the product has not been inspected.
The Chinese and Hong Kong governments have done that, but agricultural ministers in several other countries, including those in the Caribbean, have not.
"The Chinese are smarter," said Schutz, noting that despite the lack of a USDA inspection, the feet are packed under the same sanitary conditions as the rest of the chicken.
But without that federal seal of approval, chicken feet also cannot be sold in this country.
Initially, some employees balked at working in the part of the processing plant where the feet were prepared and packaged, Schutz said.
"From the plant manager on down," he said, the idea of preparing chicken feet for human consumption turned some stomachs.
"Some plants were pushing upstream for two years" trying to get their workers to go along with the idea, he said.
Schutz credits an educational campaign by Rockingham with winning worker support for the new product.
Then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles helped "fight the trash image," Schutz said, by encouraging producers to take advantage of an overseas market salivating for chicken feet.
Baliles discovered chicken feet on a visit to China in April 1987.
Although he didn't actually try them himself, the governor returned and asked someone in the state agriculture department to "find out what we do with chicken feet."
Soon Baliles was telling everyone who would listen about the potential for selling chicken feet.
He made it a theme of his annual speech at the state fair, and passed the word to fellow governors and congressional committees.
"It played to great reviews," said Baliles, who emphasized that the current economic challenge is to "design and develop new products for new markets."
In 1989, Baliles' last year in office, exports accounted for about a quarter of Virginia's economic growth, Baliles said.
Other state industries are joining the move to export products that have little domestic value.
For example, one company is planning to sell the skin of turkey legs to Brazil, where it will be turned into a leather-like material for clothing.
Thanks in large part to chicken feet, exports account for about 18 percent of Rockingham's sales, and the company has contracted with an advertising agency to promote its product in a Chinese magazine.
Chicken feet are "an acquired taste," according to the Swiss-born Schutz. He marinated some for a company picnic but "they weren't a big hit," he conceded.