ROSE HILL — More than 90 years ago, Mary Sue Johnson began raising turkeys behind her house in this small Duplin County town to make ends meet. It was during the Great Depression. Her husband, Nash also joined in on raising the big birds. When they had more kids, Nash built a hatchery and the business grew after they had children.
Their sons, Marvin and Bizzell, began selling their parents’ turkeys in the 1940s.
Fast forward to today. The Johnson family is keeping the legacy going with the House of Raeford. Bob Johnson, the son of Marvin Johnson, is currently the president and CEO of the company.
“My family has been part of the Duplin and Sampson counties area for over 100 years and my wife, Luanne, was born and raised in Sampson,” Johnson stated in a recent interview. “Since the time Nash Johnson and Sons’ Farms, and later House of Raeford Farms, were started, we have depended on farmers in Sampson County to grow our turkeys and chickens. Many of the employees that work in our two local plants and live production operations reside in Sampson. I value these special relationships and hope to continue them for years to come.”
The poultry enterprise offers a variety of services, products and brands. More than 450 family farms raise chickens in North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia for the House of Raeford.
“House of Raeford Farms is a family enterprise — four generations found not only in the board room but in every stage of our integrated business,” stated David Witter, manager, corporate sustainability and communications. “We began in the late 1950s as a family farm, grew over the years by focusing on freshness and quality, and today are one of the top 10 chicken producers in the U.S. We’re also vertically integrated, which means we handle or manage every step in the process — from hatcheries to processing.”
House of Raeford offers a variety of fresh and further processed chicken products. It includes fresh, ready-to-cook chicken with a fresh taste, appearance and delivery. The best seller is boneless skinless breast meat, followed by boneless thigh meat, tenders and wings.
The enterprise is also popular for its ready-to-eat products such as rotisserie pulled chicken, breaded chicken nuggets and mini-corn dog nuggets.
“In addition to offering all the best sellers, House of Raeford Farms is continually working to develop and refine new product ideas to satisfy the ever-changing desires of consumers,” Witter said.
House of Raeford officials said the enterprise came a long way since the doors opened. Witter said the goal is to continue to build upon the strong foundation and invest in sustainability and technology to pave the way for the next generation.
“We care about our communities and are committed to making them even better places to work and to live,” Witter attested. “We will continue investing in our employees — our greatest asset — and making House of Raeford a local employer of choice.”
The evolving industry is driven by a number of factors, in particular consumer demand and regulations, that are new and changing. Another challenge is corn and soybean prices that influence the cost of feed which accounts for 70 percent of the cost of raising chickens.
“Because we are a family-owned, vertically-integrated enterprise, we are well-equipped to adapt to all of these changing conditions,” Witter pointed out. “We keep a continuous eye on where the industry is heading and strive to stay a step ahead.”
House of Raeford currently employs about 4,600 people across multiple towns in several states in the Southeast. Approximately 1,300 employees work in Duplin County plants and live production operations.The business is expecting that number to increase with more than 2,000 associates during the next two years when the Wallace plant re-opens. It was damaged in 2017 by a fire. For the Wallace location, the business is currently accepting applications and hosting a job fair from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, June 11, at 253 Butterball Road, Teachey.
Sampson County ranks second behind Duplin as the main source of employees. Witter added that House of Raeford is an important part of Sampson County.
“Sampson County is one of the state’s major agricultural centers with a strong workforce,” Witter said. “Family farmers are the backbone of our business, and we work with many in Sampson County. House of Raeford facilities are located almost exclusively in or near small towns, where roots go deep and relationships are long and strong. We care about these communities and are committed to making them even better places to work and to live.”
Cora Murray, a human resource assistant, is one of many employees at House of Raeford. She has more than 39 years of service to the business. The Duplin County native moved to New Jersey after high school and after returning home, she began looking for work and landed a job at the House of Raeford’s Rose Hill plant.
“I really like the people. In Human Resources I have the opportunity to meet all of the new employees as I lead them through our orientation program,” Murray said. “I have also enjoyed doing a variety of jobs during my years with House of Raeford. I guess you could say I have worked from one end of the plant to the other.”
She added that there’s a family atmosphere from Johnson and other employees.
“It makes me want to come to work each day,” she acknowledged.”I am also thankful for all the added benefits we receive. A good health insurance plan, a local medical clinic operated by the company, a retirement plan, and so much more.”
Witter added that House of Raeford Farms is committed to doing the right thing in all that they do.
“This applies to every inch of our business, from our growers, employees and communities, to animal welfare, food safety and nutrition, and environmental stewardship,” he said.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.