By Eric Peterson | Jan 17, 2021
Whiting got into the feather business after earning a Ph.D. in poultry science from the University of Arkansas. After A River Runs Through It hit the silver screen in 1992, a surge of interest in fly-fishing led some industry veterans to look for an exit. "Some of the guys in hackle production said, 'Now is the time to get out,'" Whiting remembers.
Henry Hoffman was one of them. The Oregon-based fly-tier had developed a genetically desirable grizzly hackle chicken in the 1960s that supplanted imported feathers for many fly-tiers in the U.S.
After discussions, Whiting bought Hoffman's most popular lines and set up operations at a pair of former mink ranches outside Delta. The first shipment of 20,000 eggs hatched at Whiting Farms in 1989.
"I'd worked in the poultry industry and had three degrees in poultry science, so I was well-equipped educationally and had some experience to take it on," Whiting says. "I'm not a fly-tier or a fly-fisherman. I know how to do it, but I'm in it because I'm a poultry geneticist and it sounded like a fun poultry genetics project."
A customer who wanted commercial-grade feathers staked him with startup capital in the form of a $100,000 pre-order. "This turned into a long-term relationship where he was on my board of directors," says Whiting. "He kept feeding me money, and I kept building facilities as fast as I could. The first five years of the company was something close to a screaming nightmare."
But perseverance paid off. "It was just serendipity, damn good luck that I stumbled across a community that had a small, little bastion of mink production and some guys who were knowledgeable and knew what it meant to work seven days a week," notes Whiting.
Countless chicks later, Whiting Farms is the alpha rooster of the fly-tying industry, with about 80 percent of the feather market for dry flies. Today, the company's facilities -- processing at a 17-acre ranch just outside Delta and a "very isolated" production operation on a 5,000-acre ranch -- are home to about 75,000 birds at any given time.
"I've got 27 sheds in my production complex right now, and nowhere in my imagination would I have imagined it gotten that large," says Whiting. "These are some of the most pampered chickens in the world. They're arguably some of the most valuable."
Whiting learned the tricks of the trade on the job. "There wasn't much written about it, but I've figured it out over the years," he says. "You've got to give them an unstressed environment, because they're highly inbred lines. Like purebreds, they're not robust; they don't have hybrid vigor. "
The company supplies large fly manufacturers in Asia as well as distributors and fly-fishing shops across the U.S. "There are about 100 million dozen flies tied per month in the world to fill the fly-fishing market" notes Whiting. "About 30 to 33 percent of my market is just supplying these factories."
Whiting Farms has grown rapidly since the very beginning. "It's been up and up and up," says Whiting, describing "surging" demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. "I thought things were going to level off."
The staff peaked at 45 employees in the late 1990s, but has gotten smaller as the operation increasingly automated feeding, cleaning, and other processes. "Far and away, my highest expense is labor," says Whiting. "A distant second is feed and propane and those kinds of things, so I've been investing heavily in automation and new state-of-the-art facilities."
The end result is "much more production with fewer people, but I pay more now," says Whiting. "We've conquered the quality, the value, and the selection." The hard part is meeting demand. "We've never produced enough. It's too complex a product line. You're trying to produce everything under the sun."
Whiting first got into the feather business because he thought it could fund another business idea: cloning poultry with desirable characteristics. "I'm stunned it never has been done," he says.
His operation actually encompasses three distinct businesses: the "cash cow" of fly-fishing feathers -- dry and wet -- along with small-scale commercial poultry production and premium breed development for larger commercial operations that account for less than 10 percent of combined sales.
Whiting concludes with a few words of wisdom that apply to any industry. "I'm not a businessman, I'm a chicken breeder," he says. "Don't do what everybody else does. Do something different and the world will beat a path to your door."
Challenges: Filling orders. "We're at a 48 percent fill rate right now, which is abysmal," says Whiting. "I've built five barns in the last couple years, but demand has gone up faster than my expansion."
He continues, "Because we have so much momentum and the genetics program I've worked on over the years has been refined as time goes on, we are distancing ourselves from everybody else faster than we ever have. "That gap is becoming larger."
That's at odds with "a punishing revenue horizon," he adds. "I do six breeding flocks a year. The revenue out of those breeders are 14 to 24 months out in time. . . . If you don't have a healthy business, the cash flow crunch would crush you."
Opportunities: A booming market. "This recent year with COVID, demand has shot up," says Whiting. "People are at home, and I guess the ones that tie flies are tying all the flies."
"The sport of fly-fishing is enjoying a boom because it's outdoors, you're socially distanced, and it's kind of healthy. So most people are pretty optimistic about the fly-fishing world. Who would have thought?"
Needs: Whiting is negotiating with the City of Delta for a water main extension to his ranch, but his ongoing need is employees, with an eye on finding a successor. Training an heir apparent will require at least five years, he adds. "I feel an obligation to preserve these gene lines. Some of them go back 80, 90 years now."
"I've been networking lately with places like University of California, Davis, to see if there are graduate students who are entrepreneurially minded," says Whiting, 64. "There's an incredible opportunity here. From the outside, it looks like a get-rich-quick scheme, but nothing could be further from the truth."
"I do get offers to sell, but most of them want me to stay and run it," he says. "I always think, 'If I've got to stay here and run the damn thing, why am I giving away the gravy?'"