Tampa Tribune, Pasco Edition   Sep 3, 2005

Trilby Tegg-nology


TRILBY - As a man-made breeze blows past them, 135,000 chickens poke their heads from their cages and peck at feed in a narrow trough. All the while, conveyor belts with small metal pegs cradle white eggs as they begin their journey to Florida grocery stores.

Wilton Simpson has eight houses just like this one on his family's farm north of Dade City. That's just over 1 million hens producing on average 700,000 eggs a day that Simpson Farms harvests, packages and ships to major retailers across the state. Within three or four days, they'll be in scrambles, cakes or quiches from Jacksonville to Naples.

The eggs come from a variety of chickens known as W-36 Hy-Line. They're bred to be about half the size of their free- range cousins and lay larger eggs. They're made to live in the confined spaces they share in the chicken houses, Simpson said.

Simpson admits that industrial farming isn't the idea most people have in mind when they think of farming. That idea - cows grazing in a field or Rhode Islands pecking feed from the ground - isn't realistic given the costs and demands of modern agriculture, Simpson said.

He disputes any notion that conditions on his farm are harmful to his chickens.

``If we are abusive to the animals we rely on to provide our living, they won't provide,'' Simpson said.

Growth at Simpson Farms earned the company recognition by the Pasco Economic Development Council as Industry of the Year for businesses with fewer than 25 employees. It is one of a handful of agricultural companies to have won the award, said selection committee leader Judy Ravenna.

``They actually doubled their capacity, effectively duplicating themselves,'' said Ravenna, vice president of SunTrust Bank.

A dozen years ago, Zephyr Egg won an honorable mention from the EDC's award committee. In 1996, Stearns Peat Co. of Darby won in the same category as Simpson Farms.

``It's not very frequent that we see nominees from that area [agriculture],'' Ravenna said.

Simpson, 39, has helped raise chickens on the family farm since he was a child. He plans to bring his own children into the family business.

Even as he plans for the future, Simpson feels the shadow Pasco's rapid development casts on his corner of the county. Subdivisions have begun sprouting on the fringes of his land - pushing Simpson to make his operation as neighborly as possible.

``The key to the long-term survival of chicken farms is you can't have any smell, flies or other pests,'' Simpson said during a tour of farm.

The neighbors weren't as much of an issue when Simpson's parents created the farm in the late 1970s. They began with 64,000 birds, making the farm one of the state's largest at the time, Simpson said.

In recent years, Simpson's operation has become mechanized and computerized, making it more efficient. Simpson also has redesigned some of the farm's operations with the goal of mitigating the odor and pest problems. For example, fans have replaced misters to keep the chickens cool, a process that also keeps their manure dry and prevents flies from hatching there.

Simpson says some of his innovations have caught on industrywide.

``We take a lot of pride in what we have here,'' Simpson said.

The technology that makes Simpson Farms a good neighbor also will encourage development closer to it, ultimately creating problems on the day when the system breaks down and there's what Simpson calls ``an event.''

Simpson need only to look south to Gore's Dairy, surrounded by the rapidly suburbanizing northern fringe of Zephyrhills, to see one possible future for his farm. The dairy has been sold for development.

``One day we will be in a bowl just like Gore's Dairy was,'' Simpson said.

Reporter Kevin Wiatrowski can be reached at (813) 948-4201.