Ken Hightower got into the poultry business in 2004, fully intent on getting out of the poultry business one day.
What he’d do was, build four pullet houses behind his home in Calhoun County’s Rabbittown community, and he and wife Amanda would run those on top of their fulltime jobs, his as a route salesman with Petrey Wholesale and hers as a White Plains Middle School library assistant. Eventually, he would sell.
Eighteen years and another dozen pullet houses later, he’s still at it, only he’s been farming full time for 15 years, and when a prospective buyer made an offer on the operation two years ago, Ken said no. Why?
“I like working for myself too much,” he said. “That’s the biggest reason.
“Plus, I like how chickens don’t talk back. A lot of times, I’ll go several days in a row where Amanda’s the only one I talk to, and I’m fine with that.”
In 2006, the couple left their day jobs so Amanda could devote more time to their four chicken houses and Ken could join Amanda’s dad, Woody Cheatwood, in working his 2,000-acre cotton and soybean farm just down the road from Rabbittown. Shortly thereafter, the Hightowers built their second four-house pullet farm.
Things changed a decade later, when Cheatwood decided to retire not only from row-cropping but from poultry farming as well. He leased the cropland and sold Ken his eight poultry houses.
“I figured, I’ve already got eight houses; I might as well add eight more,” Ken said.
Ken is basically a one-man show, and he likes it that way.
“[Son] Eli worked with me when he was in high school and college, and Amanda’s dad is usually available to help when needed, but I would hate to know these days that I had to look for and find three or four people who I knew I could trust and depend on to do their work,” he said.
The 16 Hightower houses are located on four different farms within a five-mile radius of Rabbittown. Growers for Koch Foods, Ashland, they produce 320,000 replacement pullets and 48,000 males a year. In June, the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association recognized the couple as its 2022 Alabama Poultry Farm Family of the Year winners.
“Ken takes a lot of pride in his work,” Amanda said. “He doesn’t do anything halfway. He’s meticulous in everything.”
In nominating the Hightowers for the award, company service technician Michelle Davidson agreed with Amanda, making special note of Ken’s “meticulous nature and attention to detail.”
“Ken and Amanda maintain their 16 houses in an unbelievable balance of strict routine of feeding, collecting mortality and maintenance,” Davidson said. “Ken has the best livability of our pullet producers, and once they reach the breeder hen farm, his birds perform very well in egg production and hatch.”
Sometimes, Ken gets so wrapped up in the day-to-day operations, he loses sight of the reality that he is helping feed the world.
“We were at an Auburn football game a few years ago, and I started talking with a guy who asked what I did,” Ken said. “He actually got emotional when I told him. He said, ‘I want you to know how much appreciate what you do. I mean, I really, really do.’
“Granted, he’d had a few, but it was a good reminder.”
The Hightowers married in 1991 and have two children. Kendall lives in Birmingham with husband Riley Murphy, a real estate attorney, and baby boy Marshall, and Eli is a coach and teacher at Ranburne High School in Cleburrne County.
Ken and Amanda are active members of Rabbittown Baptist Church.
This year, generous donations each from award sponsors Alabama Ag Credit, Alabama Farm Credit and First South Farm Credit upped the first-place prize package to include a $10,000 poultry house washer, $2,500 in cash, and hotel accommodations for the Evening of Fun in Birmingham in June and the APEA annual meeting in Destin in July. The gifts also expanded the awards to include second- and third-place prizes valued at $2,600 total.
Second-place winners were Tyson Foods, Eufuala, pullet growers Bob and Emily Cox, and third-place winners were Michael and Cassie Williams who grow breeders for Ingram Farms in Cullman.