Keep Reading. Subscribe Today.

Stay connected with our community and support nationally-acclaimed local news coverage. Sign up for a subscription today. Cancel anytime.

  • Already a subscriber?

Founded in Dalzell, Manchester Quail Farms is still expanding 50 years later

BY ADRIENNE SARVIS
adrienne@theitem.com
Posted 10/19/18

Nearing its 50th year of operation, Manchester Farms, America's oldest quail farm, continues to provide the same quality of product as it did decades ago.

Since the 1970s, the farm has expanded …

This item is available in full to subscribers

Founded in Dalzell, Manchester Quail Farms is still expanding 50 years later

Posted

Nearing its 50th year of operation, Manchester Farms, America's oldest quail farm, continues to provide the same quality of product as it did decades ago.

Since the 1970s, the farm has expanded its operations and now ships its products, fresh and frozen, to retailers and restaurants across the country including Vegas, California, Miami New York.

Locally, Manchester Farms quail meat and quail eggs can be found in Kroger, Bi-Lo, Piggly Wiggly, Harris Teeter and IGA.

Brittney Miller, second generation owner and operator of the farm alongside her husband and brother, is just as passionate about providing consumers with the same quality of product as her father who started the business years ago proving that passion is the driving force behind the family's success.

"It's your all-american homegrown business."

Manchester Farms started in the 1970s with Bill Odom, a former flock supervisor for Campbell Soup Company in Sumter, who was offered a promotion to the corporate office in New Jersey for his great skill.

He raised the birds the best they had ever seen naturally and without antibiotics, Miller said.

Odom turned down the offer to work up north to stay true to his southern roots and to make his own way in the poultry business.

An avid quail hunter, Odom used his skills in poultry husbandry and degree in poultry science from Clemson University, to raise quail to train his bird dogs.

After a while, his flock grew, and the neighbors said if he dressed the birds, they would eat them, Miller said. "And literally it started in the backyard on the picnic table," she said.

Manchester Farms was founded in 1974, in Dalzell, making it the oldest quail farm in the country.

Expanding the farm

The farm moved from Dalzell to Hopkins after Hurricane Hugo touched land in 1989.

Miller said her father had already purchased the land in Hopkins where the processing plant and hatchery are currently located but the hurricane sped up the moving process.

Manchester Farms now has three farm locations: one near St. Matthews and two north of Camden; a processing facility and hatchery - built in 2007 - in Hopkins; and a headquarters office on Garner's Ferry Road.

In the old world of poultry, businesses usually contracted everything out, putting the risk on the land owner and grower, Miller said.

But she and her brother, who purchased the farm from their parents in 2008, decided to create the most sound program by staying involved and surrounding themselves with people of the same passion.

The flock

"It's in your blood," said Miller, who also has a degree in poultry science from Clemson.

She remembered inspecting the barns with her father on Saturday and Sunday mornings as a child. "When you're a farmer it never stops," she said.

But the Manchester Farms family and the love for the business extends far past blood relations.

"We have 100 families that rely on this farm," Miller said.

It's magical to see all the passion that everyone has, she said.

Miller said one of the most beautiful things is two of the managers are vegetarians who are with the birds every day of the week. That's how much people love working here, she said.

"It's what we hang our hat on: quality, safety and pride."

Almost 50 years after its humble start, the farm is still committed to maintaining the same ode of respect to raising quail safely and humanely without antibiotics and stress, Miller said.

Consumers can be confident that the products they purchase this year are consistent with the products they purchased 40 years ago, she said.

Manchester Farms' processing procedures meet USDA and FDA regulations however quail is not regulated under the USDA because they are considered game birds.

To ensure the quality of its products the farm has partnered with South Carolina state to participate in a program to inspect its quail.

And, Manchester Farms is also the only quail farm in America that falls within the Global Food Safety Initiative which makes sure food products from around the world meet the same standards, Miller said.

To be honest, she said, Manchester Farms is not the least expensive, but other farms don't undergo the same inspections.

"It's a choice that we make, and we know it costs more," she said, "but we think it's the right choice."

Biblical roots

Manchester Farms raises Pharaoh quail from Egypt.

Miller said Pharaoh quail has a biblical context and referenced the story in the Bible when God sent the Israelites quail while they were traveling through the desert with Moses.

There is also a story of a Japanese emperor from hundreds of years ago who was told by a shaman to eat quail for 30 days to be held from his illness, and it supposedly worked, Miller said.

One Pharaoh quail has about 22 grams of protein and one quail egg has the same amount of protein as five chicken eggs, she said.

Maybe, she said, the nutritional value is connected to the biblical story and God's intention to take care of the people in the desert.

Nearly 50 years of science

Farming is managing risk at the end of the day, Miller said, especially when dealing with animals.

To reduce as much risk as possible, decades of hatching chicks has been recorded and inputted into an incubation system that simulates mother nature and the mother hen.

All those years of trial and error have resulted in Manchester Farms knowing the exact day chicks will hatch.

About every two weeks, 100,000 fertilized eggs are placed in an incubator for 14 days.

The racks inside the incubator sit at an angle and shift every hour to simulate the hen sitting on the eggs, Miller said. If the eggs sit still for too long, the yolk will stick to the side of the egg and the chick won't hatch, she said.

The eggs are set on a Monday, transferred two Mondays later and hatch on a Thursday.

Of the 100,000 eggs, about 85,000 hatch, Miller said.

In the wild, 5,000 to 10,000 eggs out of 100,000 would hatch and even then, there are numerous risk factors such as weather and predators including fire ants, she said.

"They have it coming from every angle," she said.

After hatching the chicks will go to one of the 400-foot-long barns for six weeks, or an average of 40 days, while they reach maturity.

From farm to table

After the birds reach maturity, they are taken to the processing facility in Hopkins where they are cleaned, deboned, seasoned and packaged.

Deboned, one bird usually weighs about 4 ounces. A chicken can weigh 8-10 pounds depending on the breed, Miller said.

Once the birds have been cleaned, a team of four women debones the quail, each person working on a different part of the bird.

The team of four can debone about 100 quails in an hour by hand without ripping the skin or bruising the meat, Miller said. "It is an artistry," she said.

Manchester also has a bone-in product - the quail is butterflied open to lie flat on a grill.

The next step is preparing the birds for easy cooking.

If you've never had quail before, cooking it may be the most intimidating thing, Miller said.

To make things one step easier for the consumer, Manchester Farms seasons its quail through a vacuum tumble process where the birds are marinated in a brine solution that contains a little bit of spice.

Miller said the brine solution, which is a kind of a unique identifier for Manchester Farms' products, was created by her father and the man behind the Hardee's biscuit formula.

On its own, the flavor of quail is a blend between chicken breast and a little bit of thigh but it's not gamey like most people would think, Miller said.

When it comes to cooking the quail, she said chefs tend to saut , grill, stuff and roast the meat.

Or you can just put it on the grill, four minutes on each side, and chow down, she said.

Eggs-pertly picked and packaged

A growing part of the farm's retail, the sale of non-fertile eggs has seen a rise in the past five years, according to Miller.

Each egg is hand collected every day and more than 200,000 are hand packed each week which equals about 13 million eggs a year, she said.

The eggs are also checked by hand for cracks because the speckles made it harder to see damage compared to white eggs, she said.

"Quail egg shells are like snowflakes," Miller said. "There's no two that are the same." It's kind of like a fingerprint, she said.

Miller said the farm has also been blessed by a rabbi and sells kosher eggs.

The world's perfect vitamin pack

Miller said quail eggs are a favorite among fitness fanatics because of the high amounts of protein and vitamins in such small portions.

She said her parents have also seen improvements in their health from regularly eating quail eggs.

The eggs may also have health benefits for animals, Miller said. One customer regularly buys quail eggs for his dogs to alleviate their allergy symptoms, she said.

Miller said quail eggs also bring a richer flavor to a recipe.

Nine times out of 10, anyone who has eaten a brownie made with quail eggs will notice a difference, she said.

A shifting market

There are two consumers in the quail market: the people who grew up hunting quail and the new foodie community, Miller said.

Quail is a niche market and tends to fluctuate with the economy, she said. "We are definitely a nicety, not a necessity item," she said.

But the rising popularity of TV chefs and the growing popularity of home delivery meal kits like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron is introducing more people to quail, Miller said.

She said there is definitely a resurgence of chefs interested in quail, farm to table meals and a desire to know where food comes from.

More consumers are now recognizing the importance of being thoughtful about their food, Miller said, but this is what Manchester Farms has always been about.