Outstanding Young Farm Family—Poultry
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. That’s the way Mark Gaines saw it. So when he got the chance, he flew the coop, leaving behind the hubbub world of manufacturing for his lifelong dream as a full time poultry farmer. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and it just wasn’t my cup of tea,” Gaines said of his former job as quality control manager at a Calhoun County manufacturing plant where he and his wife, Tammy, had worked for more than 14 years.What WAS his cup of tea was tending his flocks — two broiler houses, and a daughter, Darian, whose childhood was whizzing past him at blinding speed. So, when Tyson Foods asked him about building two more poultry houses in 2004, Mark didn’t blink.Even though Tammy had quit her job as personnel manager two years earlier, Mark took Tyson’s interest as his invitation to go into poultry farming fulltime. It wasn’t an easy decision, but rewarding enough that the Gaineses’ poultry operation has grown to six broiler houses and earned the Piedmont family recognition as the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Outstanding Young Farm Family in the Poultry Division.”When Mark started talking about quitting his job, it was very nerve-wracking,” said Tammy. “It was unnerving enough for me to quit and give up that steady paycheck, much less him give up his. It was a big change. But he’d always told me, ‘I’m going to be working for myself by 35.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, what are we going to do between now and then!?'”Mark made his declaration of independence two years ahead of schedule, saying that he felt like he’d been “paroled from prison.” Of course, that leap of faith was made without the financial safety net to which the couple had grown accustomed.”We’d managed ourselves pretty well since we married,” Mark said. “We had money put back, and thought we could survive. But it was just the security of having that monthly paycheck coming in, and the benefits — the health insurance and the retirement plan — that made it scary. “So we discussed that over a couple of months, and we decided to do it. I said, ‘If we can’t make it, I can always go back to work somewhere.'”There was no need to worry. With the experience gained from working on his uncle’s poultry and cattle farm since age 10, Mark quickly excelled in the poultry business, adding his fifth and sixth houses in November 2005. “We’ve been expanding for the last two years,” said Mark. “Now that the chicken houses are completed, we hope to focus on improving our pasture conditions for our six horses and purchase some cattle.”The Gaines’ only regret thus far is not having taken the leap sooner. Mark says one big adjustment was dealing with the fluctuations in income. “If you manage your farm right, you get paid correctly, and it shows in the numbers,” he said. “The higher you’re ranked (among other poultry farms), the better the pay is; the lower you rank, the less you get paid. Our pay can fluctuate easily — you have to be pretty much budgeted like any other type farming.”The career change has brought other rewards, too. No longer do they have to rely on Tammy’s mother, Martha Wood, to keep watch over the chickens and Darian while they work other jobs.Instead, they’ve enjoyed watching Darian and her pony compete in pole bending and barrel racing events in area horse shows.”Like mother, like daughter,” said Mark, noting that Tammy was a two-time state barrel racing champion and rodeo queen. “A lot of people look at horses as just dead expense, but if Darian enjoys it, it’s worth it to me. It teaches her responsibility as well.”Although Tammy has since returned to a more flexible job in a school office, she and Darian still help out in the chicken houses when needed. Mark and their Tyson service man have jokingly pinned the title of “Feed Tray Technician” on Tammy, giving her responsibility for filling, washing and maintaining feed trays.”He gave me that title just because he thinks he’s the manager,” Tammy said with a laugh. “That’s my biggest job — putting up with those two. They’ve played some pretty good pranks on me.”Joking aside, Tammy says she has the last laugh these days.
“When I see people that I used to work with, they’ll ask, ‘What are you doing now?’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, we have chicken houses!’ They look at you kind of funny, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, you have your good world in that office any day you want. You can have it — been there, done that.””You always have that fear of walking into one of these houses and finding a circuit breaker or something went out and the entire flock is dead, but it’s a lot less stressful than my other job,” said Mark.He recounted a recent afternoon when he found himself playing a round of golf with a school superintendent, an attorney and a doctor. “Everyone’s introducing themselves, and I’m telling them that I’m a chicken farmer. Somebody said, ‘You ought to call yourself a poultry engineer.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t bother me to say I’m a chicken farmer. I’m not ashamed of it at all.””Like I say,” said Tammy, “We’ve been in the corporate world, and this is a whole lot better!”