Story by Sarah Naron
JOAQUIN – In Tom Gray’s family, farming has roots that run deep.
“My father was Ed Gray, and he bought a small farm – a couple hundred acres – back before I was born,” Gray said. “I grew up on the farm.”
In addition to being employed by the oil industry during the Great Depression, Gray’s father worked to cultivate grain, cotton, and cattle on the farm alongside four families who resided there.
“After the Depression, when the people went back to the cities to work, he continued the farming operation with cattle and later put in the first 20,000-capacity, double-wide boiler house,” Gray said. “He continued farming for the rest of his life.”
As he grew up, Gray – who was the family’s only son and youngest child – helped out on the farm. Following college, he married and began working as a teacher, along with his wife. The couple started their teaching careers on the coast, but soon moved back to Joaquin.
“We bought property adjoining my dad’s property,” Gray explained. “I took over the cattle business, and we taught school.”
Gray continued purchasing real estate, including land owned by his mother’s family.
“I produced and raise purebred Red Robin cattle from the late ’60s until about the early ’90s,” he said. “I sold those cattle all over the South – from the Red River Valley to Georgia. Then, I went into commercial cattle.”
Upon retiring from teaching in 1996, Gray and his wife – now 82 and 80 years old, respectively – needed another way to make a living and made their entrance into the world of chicken farming.
“I built two breeder farms – laying houses that produce hatching eggs,” Gray said. “On both farms together, we produce about 10 million hatching eggs a year.”
Today, the couple – with the help of their sons – continues to operate the farm.
“We’re semi-retired and travel a lot, but the farm and ranch has been our livelihood, along with teaching school,” Gray said.
Gray said he is unaware of the number of acres the farm encompasses and the number of cattle residing there.
“In the farming and ranching business, when somebody says, ‘How many cows you got?’ – well, it’s kind of like walking up and asking someone, ‘How much money do you have?’ and I certainly don’t have enough,” he laughed. “But we’ve been blessed.”
The farm is currently under contract to produce eggs for Tyson Foods, Inc.
“Tyson owns the birds; they provide the birds and the feed and a serviceman that directs the care of them,” Gray explained. “We furnish the facilities and the manual labor that goes into it. Everything is as automated as possible; it’s all on computers and everything, but it still requires people to reach and get the eggs off the belts as they come in and also see that everything works properly.”
Aside from manual labor and computers, operations on the farm are assisted by a conveyor belt equipped with a chain feeder that Gray’s father had a hand in designing.
“That was put in around 1949 or 1950,” Gray explained. “You could set it with a time clock, and it would come on and feed. It was very similar to what the feeders are today in some houses. Big Dutchman was the one that produced it. That was a company that had chain feeders and everything. It was a project between Big Dutchman and my dad and the county agriculture extension agent. They designed this, and it turned out good for everybody.”
While chickens are capable of providing their own heat due to their feathers and the sheer number of birds residing in one house, they require assistance in staying cool throughout the Texas summers. To make this happen, the farm utilizes systems called Cool Cells.
“We have Cool Cells on each side of the house, which is about 140 feet on each house,” Gray said. “Water flows through them, and we have about 12 fans on the other end of the building that pull air through the Cool Cells. That’s how we keep the hens cool. It’s controlled by fans kicking on and off.”
As a result, Gray said, the temperature in a chicken house can reach “at least 15 degrees below what’s outside.
“You can go in there when it’s 100 degrees outside, and with the flow of air through there, it’s very, very comfortable,” he said.
When asked to identify the biggest way in which the industry has evolved throughout the years he has been a part of it, Gray cited the introduction of computers.
“The computer is fixed where it controls the temperature. It cuts the water off at night when all the lights go out so you don’t have water leaks or anything that you don’t know about,” he explained. “The computer will also let you know if there’s a problem about the temperature and the amount of water flow and so forth.”
Although the amount of manual labor required to successfully operate a farm is greatly decreased through the use of technology, Gray said, not all problems can be monitored with a computer.
“There are two conveyor belts that pick up the eggs and bring them to you; there’s one on each side of the house, and the house is open in the middle,” he explained. “That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. You’ve got to walk the house and make sure the chickens – particularly when they first start laying – are putting the eggs in the nest, like they belong. They may lay some on the floor or on the ground, and so you have to keep those picked up and put in the nest so that it will encourage the chickens to go to the nest.”
Thanks to computers, Gray added, the nests in which the eggs are laid can be opened and closed.
“They open at a certain hour of the morning, and then, they close in the evening,” he said. “That way, you don’t have birds that get in a nest and stay there all night and roost in there, because that creates a problem with cleanliness.”
The aforementioned technological advancements, Gray said, “are some of the best things that have happened since I’ve been around.
“And there may be some around that’s newer than this that I don’t know about yet or maybe can’t afford to do,” he laughed.
The most memorable part of the experience of being in the poultry business, Gray said, is forming relationships with Tyson’s service people along the way.
“They’re all well-educated and so helpful,” he said. “We’ve always had a great relationship. People need to understand that they’re there representing the corporation, and as long as they’re doing good and making money, you will be doing that, too. It’s a hand-in-hand thing.”
When asked if he feels like there’s any experience he hasn’t had in the industry, Gray was unable to provide an example.
“If there is, I didn’t know about it, so it didn’t matter,” he laughed. “It’s been a good life.”
The goodness he has experienced is something Gray takes very little credit for.
“There’s a man upstairs, and that’s Jesus Christ, our Savior,” he said. “He’s in charge of everything. There’s nothing that I’ve done that was good that He was not responsible for. Anything and everything I’ve done, God’s had His hand on.”