Poultry operation sets its own course

Submitted photo Mary and Rick Pitman, co-owners of Mary's Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks, use innovative and humane methods in their family-operated business in California.

CLOVIS, Calif. — For Mary Pitman, co-owner of Mary’s Chickens Turkeys and Ducks, there is nothing more satisfying than a successful business and a PETA endorsement.

The family had raised turkeys for two generations but realized that a once-a-year holiday business could not pay the bills. They decided to try chickens.

“We were three months away from closing when we invested everything in a chicken processing plant and people really laughed,” Pitman said. “Everyone knew it was very hard to start a farming business. But we always shop for second-hand bargains and don’t hire people at the top. This way we have total control.”

The plant began operating in 2003.

Pitman said she also knows her customers are savvy and want to know the sources of their food. That’s the reason she puts her family’s picture on every product.

“More good news came our way when Slow Foods — a non-profit organization that advocates home cooking versus fast food — contacted me and other poultry raisers and asked if we could raise 200 organic Heritage turkeys,” she said. “The heirloom breed was in danger of becoming extinct because turkey customers were demanding bigger-breasted birds.”

The Pitmans took a risk, asked for 1,000 turkeys — and sold them all.

Heritage turkeys are more expensive because of their longer growing period, the high cost of organic food and the high labor cost of constantly pulling the turkeys out of the trees.

The Pitmans also were the first poultry producer to receive a non-GMO — Genetically Modified Organism — label for chickens that are not organic. They also were one of the first processors to use controlled atmosphere stunning.

“In traditional plants, chickens are dunked in water tanks and electric currents pass though and thus are paralyzed before slaughter,” she said.

“The birds are really stressed,” Pitman said. “With our method, they are placed in crates and sent through a chamber of carbon dioxide and put to sleep gently. PETA liked this approach, too.”

PETA — the acronym for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — is an animal activist group.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, had praise for the Pitman family’s contributions to the industry.

“The Pitman family is one of the most diversified poultry companies in the state and they are active members of the California Poultry Federation,” he said. “They not only produce chickens and turkeys but are one of the state’s largest duck processors.

They supply free-range as well as antibiotic-free birds to many restaurants and supermarkets as well as live bird markets throughout the West. They also are one of fastest growing, innovative small producers in the region.

David Pitman, Mary’s son, will be the federation’s vice chairman starting next year.

“David has brought energy and enthusiasm to the industry while working closely with California Poultry Federation and its members to promote poultry and poultry products throughout the West,” Mattos said.

Innovation is key to their poultry operation. The farm also uses air chilling after the birds are processed. In traditional plants, the birds are water chilled. At Mary’s, the birds are hung individually and cold air is pumped through so there is no danger of bacteria or cross contamination as there is with water.

“I love the fact that we are a family–owned, American business,” Pitman said. “I operate our hotline and I love to hear our customer’s surprise when they call Mary’s Chickens and talk to Mary.”

Mary Pitman

Hometown: Clovis, Calif.

Family: Married, husband Rick and three grown sons

Occupation: Co-owner of Mary’s Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks

Quote: “We work really hard to produce the healthiest chickens, turkeys and ducks.”

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