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SC quail farm business booming, but finding employees remains a struggle

The owner of Manchester Farms Quail, the oldest quail farm in the nation, is taking walk-ins to help staff her business after furloughs in 2020.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In our series "Surviving COVID: Farm-to-table," local farmers and restaurant owners share with us how they fought their way through the pandemic.

For one of the owners of three quail farms in South Carolina, she began shifting her business plan several weeks before the pandemic shut our nation down.

While her sales are booming now, she's having a tough time finding more employees.

January 2020, as coronavirus cases began popping up in the United States, Brittney Miller, Owner and Operator of Manchester Farms Quail, started planning ahead.

Credit: Manchester Farms Quail

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"Our business before COVID was about 80% restaurants, 20% retailers," said Miller.

She ordered packaging ahead of time, knowing it was about to be in short supply. She also started pulling their flock in early to produce more retail products.

"You wake up and go, 'Did I make the right choice? Did I make the right choice?'" she said.

In March when the farm shut down, Miller says she was forced to furlough employees.

"We went from 100 people basically down to 22 overnight," she explained.

Credit: Manchester Farms Quail

By July, she started processing birds again. Instead of making more products for restaurants, she'd make the majority for grocery stores.

"We fortunately just had to shift our product mix," said Miller. "We came back online in July and we've sold out of everything we've produced since then."

Miller says she's fortunate to have had both the retail market and food service market to send her products.

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"We've always had a diverse group of marketplaces for this very reason because quail is a nicety, not a necessity. So when economies are bad, people will slough off quail and go buy them from the grocery store just as they did in the pandemic."

Now, Manchester Farms is in need of more employees. As of mid-April, they currently have about 55 out of 100.

Credit: WLTX

"There was this major event that caused people to take a step back and look at their life and what their life goals are. Do they want to be in the restaurant business? Do they want to go back to school? Do they want to retire? It's a complete reset of everybody's employment," said Miller. "We could stand to probably hire 30 to 40 people right now."

It's a struggle many business owners in the Midlands are facing as more consumers are venturing out to eat.

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"The restaurants are all fighting for the same people who want a job. We're all fighting to get them in," Miller explained. "We used to do open interviews on Tuesdays from 2 to 4. At this point just walk in the door. Come on in and we'll give you a job."

Pre-pandemic, Manchester Farms Quail processed about 65-thousand birds a week.

Within the next two weeks, Miller says they'll be at the same level once again at the oldest quail farm in the nation.

"We've all done this for all of our lives and have too much love and passion for it," she said. "We're not gonna let one pandemic take us down."

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