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Little birds are big business for Georgia firm
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GREENSBORO, Ga. (AP) — Georgia may be the poultry capital of the U.S., producing billions of broiler chickens a year. But a company in Greensboro has found success raising and selling another meat bird one-tenth the size of the typical commodity chicken.

Quail International, which turned 30 this year, calls itself the largest grower and processor of quail in the U.S. A tan hatchery and offices front Highway 15 just outside of downtown Greensboro, and acres of pasture sprawl out behind it, the fields dotted by aluminum houses where some quail lay small, speckled eggs and others grow fat until old enough for slaughter.

From the facility comes the company's signature brand, Plantation Quail, found in grocery stores around the country and at local restaurants like Five & Ten and The National.

The game birds grown by Quail International are a breed called Pharaoh that's meatier than the North American bobwhite quail. Quail International's owners, who are based in Europe, brought the birds to America more than 30 years ago when they purchased the Greensboro plant from a chicken processor.

The U.S. quail market was almost non-existent 30 years ago, marketing director Arnold Cardarelli Jr. said. Now, Quail International sells more than 16 million quail a year with plans to increase production by a few million.

A major difference between the chicken and quail industries, obviously, is size. Because quail isn't a major business in the U.S., there's little research money devoted to it, Cardarelli said. So in the past 30 years, Quail International has conducted its own research on important factors like hatching practices, growing conditions and feed mixes. Each leg of Quail International's production — hatching, laying, growing and slaughter — is maintained by a team of poultry industry veterans and certified veterinarians.

Alexandra Castro maintains the hatcheries, where tens of thousands of eggs on any given day are kept warm until they hatch.

She also maintains the laying houses, where equally large numbers of hens lay a fresh batch of eggs to fill another round in the hatchery incubators.

Diego Silva, a contract grower, raises meat birds and uses his scientific background to test growing variables like amount of light or quail-per-square-foot ratios.

Raul Otalora, another veterinarian, oversees all slaughter.

The equipment used to slaughter quail isn't standardized or mass-produced, so the company has partnered with engineers and manufacturers to specially make the equipment used to kill, clean and package quail.

In the U.S., quail is considered wild game and isn't subject to the same federal scrutiny as the chicken industry.

Still, Quail International keeps up the same state and federal inspection schedule, as well as an additional private third-party inspection, to maintain a safety standard that exceeds expectations for their international markets, Cardarelli said.

At full weight, a quail weighs about 8 ounces, compared to the 5-pound average for a commodity chicken. Its small size means some processes along the production line, like de-boning, must be performed by hands. More than 80 workers at a time hustle along the mechanized lines in Otalora's processing plant.

Chinese and Vietnamese markets make up more than 50 percent of Plantation Quail's customer base, with Hispanics adding another 25 percent. U.S. grocery stores and restaurants only account for 20 percent of the company's business. But there's a new push to expand the domestic market, explained Quail International's general manager, Ivan Bilbao.

"We've been trying to teach Americans to eat quail," Bilbao said.

Building the market, both Bilbao and Cardarelli explained, means introducing new products and a new brand look. Items like quailbobs, vegetable and game kabobs ready for the grill, and quail mignon, bacon-wrapped quail breasts, are new ways to attract customers.

A total makeover of packaging to look more upscale is another.

"We're using the same processes the chicken business did 30 years ago," Cardarelli said.