Minh Triet To, above, was born in Vietnam but now lives in Calhoun where he is building new chicken houses. To is part of a growing trend among Vietnamese to start poultry and other farming operations in the South.
Minh Triet To, a Vietnamese man who has lived in the U.S. since 2001, is excited about the eight new chicken houses under construction on his Gordon County property.
For To and the increasing number of Vietnamese and Asian families flocking to poultry and other types of farming in the southern U.S., chicken farms are lucrative and solid business moves.
“The income is good,” said To, who also owns a nail salon and has rental properties with his wife. “It’s not up and down, like when the market broke down. The chicken farm keeps going, always going.”
According to The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census - the most recent data available - the number of Asian-owned farms (this number includes all types of farms) increased 63 percent from 2002 to 2012, up from 8,375 to 13,669 farms nationally. Asian farmers only make up 0.6 percent of total farmers in the nation, but in contrast principal operators of all farms declined four percent between 2007 and 2012.
Community Bank of Pickens County’s Senior SBA Manager Kevin Clingman said since he came on board at the Jasper office in 2014 he has “constantly seen Vietnamese families coming in” to inquire about loans for poultry farms. In fact, Clingman said a Vietnamese couple from Virginia was in town just last week to look at a farm. When that couple learned that another farm was for sale in the area they told a Vietnamese friend who is also interested in the poultry business.
Currently, Community Bank of Pickens County’s SBA division has approximately $6.5 million in loans issued to three separate Vietnamese borrowers for poultry farms. That’s compared to the approximate $12 million the lending institution has issued to non-Asian borrowers for poultry farms in their $110 million total portfolio.
Last week Minh Triet To visited Community Bank of Pickens County’s SBA office off Camp Road (where he secured funding for his own eight chicken houses) to talk about life as a chicken farmer and why he thinks other Vietnamese families are getting on board.
Chicken business is big business
According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, broiler chickens are the top commodity in the state. In 2014, broilers had a production value of $4.8 billion in Georgia. That same year, chicken houses and free-range operations boasted 1.32 billion total head, with broiler production increasing from $3.4 billion in 2011 to $4.8 billion in 2014.
To said the stability of the industry is what draws him and his Vietnamese friends to chicken farming, which is also widespread in Vietnam. To pulled out a picture of a Vietnamese friend in front of his newly-constructed chicken houses in the southern U.S. Then he mentioned another Vietnamese friend who has preliminary work such as surveying and other elements in place so he can build houses in the future.
“A lot are my friends,” he said. “There are a lot [of Vietnamese chicken farmers] in Macon, Mississippi, Alabama.”
To’s own interest in poultry farming came after he moved to the states in 2001, when he bought a nail salon. He got an up-close look at chicken farming operations when his mother-in-law bought a farm in the U.S. in 2003.
“I was a technical electrician when I lived in Vietnam,” he said. “I fixed everything electric for her for the chicken farm. I know [chicken farming] because my mother-in-law had one. I know everything about it now, and my wife said the money I make could maybe be better than the nail salon with my job as electrician.”
To and his wife bought a two-house egg farm in 2004 and are now adding those eight broiler houses, each of which holds about 20,000 chickens.
“They’ve worked on somebody else’s farm so they have the experience,” Clingman said of their Vietnamese clients. “A big attraction for them is that in Vietnam there’s a lot of agriculture.”
Clingman said when he worked as an SBA lender on the Gulf Coast, Vietnamese families were big in the shrimping business as well.
“We financed a lot of shrimp boats in Alabama and Louisiana. [Vietnamese] were huge in that industry,” he said. “They’d buy a smaller used boat and make money then buy a bigger boat and keep upgrading. That was before shrimp started to be imported.”
Clingman also mentioned a Vietnamese real estate broker he knows who is tied into the Vietnamese poultry farm community in the south.
“And those farms she doesn’t list she knows are on the market,” he said.
Thousands of chickens, more than one basket
The SBA lender said in his experience Vietnamese families play it smart and don’t put all their eggs in one financial basket. Like To, they have numerous streams of income to support the farm’s operations and keep cash flow stable.
“They are essentially debt free and have strong down payments,” Clingman said. “Part of their strategy is that it’s not their sole source of income. They’ve usually got a nail salon or rental properties, which means two or more sources of income, and that makes us feel a lot better about these loans. Their plan is to attack that debt and pay it down, whereas most poultry farmers just pay their payment every month.”
Clingman said these Vietnamese borrowers usually have a lot of support from their family, which contributes to their success.
“The husband works in the chicken houses; the wife runs the salon and they have help from a spouse’s mother for childcare,” he said.
To does have four children, but at this point he said they are too young to help on the farm, ranging from a few months to 13 years old. To will work all eight houses with one other person, and has plans to sell the nail salon he had owned for 17 years to free up more time for farm work.
“Nail salon is long days,” To said. “We might sell it because when I work for chicken farm I don’t know if I can have it, because [Vietnamese] are different. We don’t just go home at seven if that’s when we close. We want to stay and make money so we stay sometimes two hours later.”