Mountaire Farms Inc. near Millsboro has started an $8.5 million project to build a new hatchery with help from a state grant.
Last week, Mountaire officials received a $255,000 grant from the Delaware Strategic Fund to build the hatchery, expected to increase chick production from 750,000 to 1.8 million each week.
Mountaire Vice President of Human Resources and Business Services Mike Tirrell said the project is driven by customer demand.
The company may seek other grants, but at this point the rest of the money is coming from Mountaire, he said.
“Mountaire has been in Millsboro since 2000, and we are constantly updating,” Tirrell said. In 2000, the $35 million resource recovery plant was built; updates to processing procedures and equipment have followed, but hatchery construction, which began last month, is one of the largest projects since 2000.
Mountaire employs 1,641 people in Millsboro, and Tirrell said four additional workers will be hired. The remaining 36 hatchery employees will come from other areas of the facility.
“This is a win for the agriculture industry, the environment and a win for Delaware, keeping the economy going here, creating jobs,” said Delaware Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin. “Chicken is a nutritious product, and the fact it is made in Delaware makes it even better.”
Mountaire, which has another hatchery in Princess Anne, Md., started planning the hatchery expansion last year, when officials decided to add on to an existing building in Millsboro. The 22,000-square-foot expansion will result in 85,000 square feet of hatchery space.
Eggs to supply the new hatchery will come from Mountaire’s breeder operation in North Carolina. Nearly 200,000 eggs will arrive at the Mountaire plant by tractor trailer.
“Just because the eggs arrive at the same time, doesn’t mean they will hatch at the same time,” Tirrell said.
“They are stored in refrigerated rooms until the designated time to start the development process for a specific group of eggs. The refrigeration temperature prevents development from starting.”
The eggs are monitored, vaccinated and allowed to develop. Twenty-one days later, the eggs hatch, Tirrell said.
“Then the chicks are taken to 300 local farms for the growing cycle,” Tirrell said.
Raised by regional farmers for seven to eight weeks, the chickens are trucked back to Millsboro for processing, and the whole procedure can begin again.
“This is also an opportunity for chicken growers, because with the hatchery here, we will need more growers,” Tirrell said.
Despite drought last year and higher corn and soybean prices, Tirrell said Mountaire is expanding because demand for chicken continues to grow.
“Our customers are asking us for more, but I am not sure if that is affected by what other companies are doing,” Tirrell said about changes in Sussex County chicken operations after Harim of South Korea bought bankrupt Allen Family Foods. Allen Harim is also increasing operations in existing facilities and is expanding processing operations at the former Vlasic pickle plant in Millsboro.
“As our customers grow, their demand for products grows,” Tirrell said. “We are trying to supply them the best we can.”