How One Woman Helped Transform Chicken into an American Staple—100 Years Ago
Long before the days of chicken sandwich wars, wings and sliced rotisserie, was a time when few Americans actually ate chicken. Flashback to the early 1900s. Enjoying a young broiler chicken (or chicken raised for meat) was a rarity, as one typically cost around $0.50 per pound, or about $22 per pound today. On the flipside, rural Americans typically only ate chicken once an old hen stopped laying eggs—which generally tasted pretty dry and tough.
So how did the American chicken industry get its big break? It’s National Chicken Month, so now is the perfect time to find out!
A Long-Lasting Impact that Steele Matters
Enter Cecile Long Steele of Delaware, who is credited with pioneering the poultry industry in 1923—exactly 100 years ago! When Steele received an accidental shipment of 500 chicks for egg production instead of 50, she built additional housing and raised the birds, selling them for meat at $0.62 per pound.
Steele’s neighbors quickly noticed her good fortune and started investing in the chicken business as well. As Steele’s production ramped up to 1,000 chicks the following year, Delaware alone raised over 10 million broiler chickens by 1925! The thriving economy of the Roaring ‘20s, along with advancements in refrigeration, transportation and supermarkets, considerably helped the chicken gain popularity in America.
Thanks to Steele’s resourceful ingenuity and leap of faith, the 2023 American chicken industry:
- Is No. 1 in the world for broiler production, with U.S. farmers raising 9.4 billion chickens in 2022.
- Outpaces other types of national meat consumption, with the average American eating 16 pounds of chickenin 2022.
- Is the most affordable source of high-quality protein in the meat case, complete with all 9 essential amino acids.
- Directly and indirectly employs 5 million Americans.
- Is producing more with less—between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. chicken industry produced 21% more chicken by weight, all while achieving significant improvements in key sustainability metrics.
As a result of her incredible impact, Steele was named into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983. Today, women chicken farmers around America keep her business savvy, bird-loving spirit alive. Let’s meet a few of them.
Continuing Steele’s Entrepreneurial Legacy
Rachel Rhodes of Maryland, along with Lauren Arbogast of Virginia, are just 2 examples of women who also never expected to turn into chicken farmers! Rachel and Lauren hadn’t planned on helping run chicken farms, until they married chicken farmers! But today, they embrace their family operations with a great love for their flocks, and a desire to grow only the healthiest, safest chickens for people all around the world to eat—and to do so sustainably.
“Never in a million years did I imagine when I met my husband, we’d own a slice of the American dream. My husband, Ryan, is an 11th generation farmer and a 2nd generation chicken farmer. When you find your life’s passion, your job isn’t a job, it’s a labor of love.
As technologies change, we strive to remain current and innovative. It’s important for us to run a farm that is sustainable because we have children who will inherit this farm, and we want to make sure they can have this farm in 100 years. But if you’re not taking care of your soil and your air, then you have nothing. And, making sure that we do that, either through our cropland production or technology in our chicken houses, it’s just our lifeblood.”
–Rachel Rhodes of Maryland
“Growing up in the city, I knew nothing about farming, and started from the bottom up when I met Brian! One of the first times I came to the farm, I went into a chicken house and was blown away by the size and scope—I didn’t have any concept of what ‘raising chickens’ entailed! I’ve developed a strong appreciation for the care and passion that the farmers across the country have to raise a product.
Little by little, decision by decision, our farm has made sustainability common practice. We at Arbogast Farms are looking toward the future with optimism. We have the next generation coming up on the farm, learning and watching, and, also, inventing and doing. We hope we have created a culture that looks at innovation and sustainability as a baseline, not an end goal. We look to continually improve our practices in this generation and into the next, leaving our land and resources in a better position than where we found them.”
–Lauren Arbogast of Virginia
There’s little doubt Steele would be proud of broiler farm-hers like Rachel and Lauren. But you don’t have to raise chickens to be an agvocate! Show your National Chicken Month pride by simply celebrating with these comforting and nourishing recipes. You can also stay tuned with the latest U.S. broiler industry updates year-round by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn.