LUMBERTON — Some of the first chickens that will be processed at Sanderson Farms’ under-construction plant near St. Pauls have hatched recently at the company’s hatchery and local headquarters in Lumberton.
Bob “Pic” Billingsley, director of development and engineering for the Laurel, Mississippi-based poultry giant, said this week that his company’s hatchery on N.C. 41 recently began operating and hatching chicks.
“The hatchery is running very well,” he said. “… Chicks that are now being hatched there will provide the live birds for processing at the plant (in St.Pauls) when it begins full operation on Jan. 9.”
The hatchery is expected to employ about 75 people in white-collar jobs, with an average wage approaching $50,000.
Billingsley said that the eggs now being set at the hatchery will take 21 days to hatch. The same day the eggs hatch, the chicks will be delivered to farms that work under contract with Sanderson, where they will be kept for 63 to 64 days so they can mature for processing.
When fully operational, the plant is expected to process about 1.25 million chickens a week.
Billingsley said that 300 people have been hired to man the $17 million hatchery and $115 million processing plant.
“Every week we will hire additional people,” he said. “We will hire continuously through 2017 and into the first part of 2018 until we get to our target number of 1,100 employees.”
Billingsley said in late September that during two job fairs, one in Lumberton and one in Hoke County, more than 4,000 applications were received for the 1,100 positions that will eventually be filled. The company plans to hire a mostly local workforce, although some top management will be brought in from other locations.
Sanderson Farms will hire about 1,000 hourly employees. Entry level wages for line operators begin at $11.50 per hour and go upward from there.
The plant’s opening is expected to take a bite out of the Robeson County unemployment rate, which was 10.3 percent in November, a huge increase over the 6.8 percent in October, and indicative of the number of jobs that Hurricane Matthew washed away.
According to Billingsley, “process training” for employees working at the St. Pauls plant will begin on the plant grounds Monday. Company officials have said from early on the processing plant would be built and operating early in 2017.
“Everything is running exactly on schedule,” he said.
During a presentation to the Lumberton Rotary Club in late September, Billingsley told the Rotarians that his company, the third largest poultry producer in the United States, is the only company that has built new poultry complexes since 1997 and is continuing to seek new locations to expand operations.
“There are a lot of poultry operations in North Carolina, but they are old facilities,” he said. “When you look at our facilities, you are looking at the newest and most advanced.”
Billingsley has referred to Robeson County and Sanderson Farms as a “perfect fit.” He said that the county offers all of the elements desired by his company when it looks to expand its operations, and that those involved in local economic development recruitment efforts — including Greg Cummings, the county’s industrial recruiter, and Ricky Harris, the county’s manager — did a “well researched and professional” job of selling the county to Sanderson Farms after the company’s original plans to locate in Cumberland County fell through.
Cummings said Friday that based on a $100 million investment, Sanderson Farms will pay taxes to the county, Lumberton and St. Pauls totaling about $1.4 million a year. For the next 10 years, however, the company will only pay half of that total tax amount because of incentives it was given to come to Robeson County.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.