Updated

That chicken dinner on your plate is more likely to come from Kings County in the future. Sanger-based Pitman Family Farms continues to grow its ranches and poultry barns in both Kings and Tulare counties this year.

The fast-growing poultry company applied in October to Kings County for conditional-use permits for 70 new barns at four existing county ranches - increasing the production of its meat chickens overall by four-fold.

One ranch will go from the production of 120,000 birds at one time to 1.02 million. Chickens grow fast with a turnover of five to six weeks. The company waits to raise the next batch at the ranch after varying times. Considering this there might be a turnover of four or five flocks a year or 4 or 5 million birds could come from this one ranch.

In 2016, the Kings County Crop Report says total yearly poultry production was 5.2 million head.

A similar expansion is underway in Tulare County says economic development staffer Mike Washam who estimates Pitman is increasing capacity by about 30 percent at three different sites. In 2016, the county’s poultry flock was 13.5 million.

Fresno County historically has been the largest player with a flock of well over 100 million at any one time.

Pitman, a family-owned company, built a new Hanford feed mill in the past few years, able now to receive 100 car unit-train shipments of corn to supply its expanding kingdom of ranches.

But not everyone is cheering Pitman’s approach.

The company has gained popularity for its Mary’s Chickens brand because it advertised that the chickens have “free range” to go outside the barn and spread their wings, are not fed antibiotics and are slow growing.

A 2012 a San Francisco Chronicle story reported that "Besides the quality of the poultry, the Pitman Farms have become known for the way they treat their birds, before and during slaughter. All of the birds are free to leave the barn, and unlike traditional methods, the chickens are gassed before having their throats slit at slaughter. The technique, used in only one other American chicken operation, is considered more humane and is sanctioned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."

But in September an activist group, Direct Action Everywhere, videotaped a number of Pitman chicken ranches in the Central Valley reporting that there was “no sign that birds could go outside" and that they were “packed shoulder to shoulder” in the barns.

Responding to these claims in a publication called The Intercept on Sept. 15, Pitman’s David Rubenstein said the chickens in the video were not raised for Whole Foods as the article claimed, nor were they being monitored by a third party, Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit animal welfare organization funded by Whole Foods where they sell Pitman’s Mary’s Chickens brand.

Instead, he said the ranches they videotaped were for other customers.

Calls to Rubenstein, David and Ben Pitman, were not returned.

It is clear that Pitman Farms have hung their hat on the idea of animal welfare and the notion that chickens are better off being able to spread their wings outside for some of the time.

A reading of the management plans for the four new ranches in Kings County offers no proof any of them will be spending any time outdoors.

In fact, the plan filed with the county says chickens will have about a square foot of space each - a 27,000-square-foot barn will raise 27,000 chickens and adds that ”chickens will stay in the same building their whole life of production.”

A new application for a 1.14 million bird poultry ranch in Pixley in Tulare County - does say, however, that these particular barns will have "free range" openings every 50 feet and chickens can move in and out of the barn "freely."

John Lindt is an independent business reporter. He can be reached at sierra2thesea@gmail.com

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