When Thomas Whiting left the University of Georgia in 1982 with his master's in poultry science, few knew how high he would let his education fly.
Today, Whiting is president of Whiting Farms in Delta, Co. where more than 100,000 chicken pass through each year. But none make it to the processing plant, and he doesn't raise them for eggs.
The Secret's in the Feathers
Whiting raises chickens just for their feathers. And fly fishermen across the world are glad he does.
Called hackles in fly-fishing circles, the feathers are used to make lures. The farm raises specially bred chickens for their fly-tying feathers. He also raises a few black-meated meat chickens, some Junglefowl and about a half dozen pheasant species crosses.
Through breeding, selection and other scientific methods, feathers are created that resemble the colors and textures of insects that attract fish.
Genetics is the Key to His Success
After graduating from UGA, Whiting went to the University of Arkansas and earned a doctorate in poultry genetics. He then founded the company that allows him to combine his education and his passion - big business.
The farm casts out more than 2,200 different types of fishing products each year. Current sales are just under $4 million and growing. "I expect continued steady growth," Whiting said, "maybe up to 250,000 birds per year in five years."
In April 1989, Whiting hatched out his first Hoffman chicks, from which Whiting Farms "Hoffman Hackle" has risen to be the best and dominant hackle in the world market.
In addition, Whiting created many new colors, 28 now and expanding. He also developed an "American Hackle" chicken line specifically for salt water and salmon flies. In 1996, Whiting Farms added the number 2 quality genetic hackle stock known as "Herbert Hackle," to complement its gene pool and product line.
"We have now added further processing of some of our feather products in Mexico and Sri Lanka," Whiting added.
The Best in the Midwest
Last year, Whiting Farms was named the Small Business Exporter of the Year by the Small Business Administration for Colorado and SBA Region VIII which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota. Whiting Farms also received the Pioneer Spirit Award from the Delta Colorado Area Chamber of Commerce recognizing their rapid growth and contribution to the area economy.
Whiting's goal is to make Whiting Farms the producer of quality fly-tying feathers in the world, and they are well on their way. Whiting Farms sells their feathers worldwide with Japan as their largest single foreign market. Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand also buy considerable quantities. In all, Whiting Farms sells products to 30 countries and 46 states.
(Photographs courtesy of Whiting Farms.)
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)