The sight of 85,000 baby quail running toward you is ... awesome.
The tiny birds had been born just a couple of hours earlier in the Manchester Farms hatchery a few miles away and were now making themselves at home in a climate-controlled coop at a farm down the road.
The sheer number of birds is impressive, but for Brittney and Matt Miller, owners of Manchester Farm Quail, it’s just another Thursday in Lower Richland.
Equally impressive is that this company – which started as a one-man operation – is today a national prestige brand, the largest producer of farm-raised quail in the United States. The operation raises and processes nearly 4 million Pharoah quail (Coturnix) a year that are sold to restaurants and grocery stores nationwide.
Bill Odom, Brittney’s father, started raising quail in the early 1970s on land near Manchester State Forest, primarily to train his hunting dogs. What birds he didn’t use with his dogs would be frozen and sold to friends and local restaurants. But demand for his farm-raised quail grew, so Odom began to contract out parts of the business – hatchers, breeders, farmers and processors – and turned to national distributors to deliver orders.
Odom retired in 2008, turning Manchester Farms over to Brittney and his son, Steve. The two decided they wanted more control over their product, so they brought some of the contract work back to the farm. Today, Manchester contracting out only to a grower to raise the birds. Even then, Manchester Farms pays for the feed and owns the birds.
In 2013, Brittney bought out her brother’s stake in the company, and she and her husband are at the helm today.
“This is not a job,” Brittney said, “it’s our passion, our lifestyle.”
‘We’ve found a rhythm’
Manchester Farms has helped grow more business operations.
There’s the hatchery, processing plant and a separate farm in Lower Richland. There are grow-out farms in McBee, Gadsden and Bethune where the quail are raised, and the breeding farm where eggs are laid/collected. Spreading out the operations helps reduce the damage that can be caused by illness or natural disasters. During Hurricane Hugo a couple of Manchester Farms’ locations were devastated, though they suffered no property damage from the recent floods earlier this month that hit Lower Richland hard.
The Millers take precautions and, to cover for any losses, are never without a three-month inventory in their freezers.
“Production is all about scheduling,” Brittney said. “It used to be pretty cyclical. Now, it’s year-round. We’ve found a rhythm.”
Every day, eggs are gathered from the farms and delivered to the setting room once a week.
In the setting room, the eggs are placed in racks, angled to make sure the yolks don’t stick to the shell and machine-rotated ever so slightly to emulate nature. For 14 days the eggs are kept at a constant temperature and humidity before being transferred to the hatching rooms. Every step of the process is computer-controlled with monitors set to sound an alarm if the temperature varies by one-quarter of one degree.
Hatching begins Wednesday evenings and usually finishes by mid-morning Thursday. Workers gather the chicks by hand and sort by sight, culling any hatchling that cannot stand and walk on its own. In every 100,000 eggs hatched, on average, 85,000 chicks survive. The chicks are then loaded in crates into a climate-controlled van for the ride to the coop.
“Everything is custom in the quail business,” said Brittney, “because the (poultry) business is built for chickens and turkeys,” not the smaller quail. Every precaution is taken, she added – temperature and lighting, humidity, noise and actual speed of transfer – to reduce the stress placed on the new flock.
Once at the coop, it takes just a few minutes for six men to unload the birds. Matt Miller stands at the far end of the coop and whistles, drawing attention of the flock. It’s important to get the birds evenly spread throughout the room and to the water drip lines and open feed bowls. If there is a massing of chicks, there is the possibility of suffocation and loss. Also, the birds need to quickly find food and water sources.
So Matt whistles and one of the workers opens and closes a vented window, using the light to attract the chicks further down the length of the coop. This is also the loudest the birds will be, settling in to their new surroundings. In two other areas, where the birds have been for a week or so and are comfortable, the noise level is reduced considerably.
“It’s relaxing, really,” says Matt, “to come out and sit in these coops and listen to the birds chirping.”
The new flock will stay in the first coop for three weeks, moving to the larger areas as they grow, until they are moved to the grow-out farms. During this time, they are fed an all-natural corn and soybean diet supplemented with nutrients, enzymes and pro-biotics. The flocks are regularly checked by veterinarians but “in 20 years, we have never used antibiotics,” Matt said. “We do these things because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s an industry trend.”
The processing plant, hatching site and coops are immaculate. At Manchester Farms, it has to be that way.
“We want the birds to be happy and healthy,” Matt said. “It’s in no one’s interest to harm these animals.”
“I say, if it looks dirty, it eats dirty,” Brittney added. “We consider the quail as we would infant children. What would you do for your child? We want to have the safest, cleanest, most wholesome environment.”
As a testament to their high standards and work ethic, the Millers are in the process of getting the farm Certified Humane Raised & Handled, meaning that they will be held to a high standard of animal care.
Manchester Farms currently is the only Level 2 Safe Quality Food (SQF) certified quail processor in the country out of three levels. The quail also are certified organic and kosher.
More than birds
It’s not only quail that keeps Manchester in the market.
There is a research and development kitchen on the grounds of the processing facility where consulting chef Bill Hofmann refines recipes for new products or dishes for special events. He has developed recipes for quail sausage and is testing recipes for pickled quail eggs (three so far: bourbon, beet and a Champagne-star anise combination) for special events and restaurant charcuterie boards. The test kitchen is also working with a Charleston chef to develop the flavor profile of a chicken burger, and a “Duck Dynasty” project with Wal-Mart for a special Duck Commander bacon-wrapped quail product.
The processing plant is divided: one side does quail processing while another separate area can be converted to handle unusual or labor intensive products. This second area, for instance, is used for applying the butter glaze to pork chop patties used in Bojangle’s biscuit sandwiches. Between the people working in the processing plant and the farm sites, Manchester Farms employs 120 people, some who have been with the company 15 to 20 years.
The Millers use about 300 nationwide distributors for the quail, some specializing in fast delivery to the West coast. Birds processed on Monday will be shipped and on diner’s plates in Las Vegas, Seattle and Los Angeles by Wednesday.
And, there’s a growing market for quail eggs in the Asian markets throughout the United States. Manchester Farms shipped 13 million quail eggs to Asian markets in New York and California alone last year.
With Manchester Farms quail, the Millers have filled a niche in the market with a high quality product that is both nostalgic and attainable.
“People have childhood memories of quail being served with grits at Christmas,” Brittney said. “The quail used to cost three times the cost of beef. Nowadays, the price is less than beef. And because of shows on FoodTV and recipes in Food+Wine and Bon Appetit magazines, folks are re-familiarizing themselves with quail.
“What used to be fine dining is now common place.”
From farm to table
Although the best way to prepare Manchester Farm quail is to simply grill with a little salt and pepper, try these recipes, compiled by Manchester Farm:
Oven Roasted Quail with Lime Glaze
Serves 2-3 for appetizer
All purpose flour, for dredging
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons bacon drippings
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons maple syrup, honey or agave
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Lightly dredge quail in flour, then lightly salt and pepper.
In a medium cast iron (or oven proof) skillet, heat bacon drippings. Place quail in skillet, skin side down, and fry over medium heat for 3 minutes.
Turn quail over, fry additional 3 minutes. Pour lime juice and maple syrup in pan (not on top of quail). Transfer to oven and roast for 5 minutes.
Remove, cut each quail in half and serve immediately with maple lime glaze poured on top.
Crab Stuffed Quail
8 Manchester Farm semi-boneless quail
1 pound claw crab meat
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup frozen chopped spinace, thawed
1/4 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
In a mixing bowl, add crab meat, eggs, bread crumbs, wine and onions and mix thoroughly. Squeeze water out of thawed spinace and add spinach to mixture. Add half of the melted butter, save the remaining 1/8 cup.
Stuff quail with equal amounts of filling and place on a rack on a baking sheet and brush with remaining melted butter. Bake10-25 minutes or until juices run clear.
Poached Quail Eggs in Tomato Sauce
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 tomatoes, grated
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 Tablespooon tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
12 quail eggs
salt and pepper to taste
Heat large frying pan on medium heat. Heat the oil, the cook onions and garlic until they are soft.
Add grated tomatoes with juices, bell pepper, tomato paste and paprika. Stir to combine and bring to low boil. Reduce heat to low. Stir in parsley and simmer for 5 minutes.
Carefully crack eggs into tomato sauce, try to keep the yolks intact. Cover pan and poach eggs in sauce for 3-5 minutes or until egg whites are set and yolk is still runny. Serve with toast or crusty bread.
Where to buy it
Manchester Farms split-breast, bone-in quail can be found in most Publix, Bi-Lo, Piggly Wiggly, Ingles, Harris Teeter and Winn Dixie stores.
Other quail products, such as boned or bacon-wrapped, can be purchased online at www.manchesterfarms.com or at the Manchester Farms office, 8126 Garners Ferry Road; (800) 845-0421