Whole Lotta Love
Manchester Farms' secret to raising the country's most select quail? Just all-natural TLC.
Which comes first—the quail or the egg? No doubt, quail farmer Brittney Miller has heard that one before. Even so, it’s a valid question, especially given that Miller’s Columbia-based Manchester Farms sells both quail meat and quail eggs, and lots of them.
Answer: the chicken, of course.
Chicken indeed came before quail, as poultry was the original focus of the family-owned Manchester Farms back in the early 1970s, when Bill Odom, Miller’s father and a Clemson-trained poultry scientist, raised chickens for Campbell Soup Company. And not just any chickens, but the best produced by Campbell’s sizable pool of poultry farmers.
“Back then, it was unheard of not to use chemicals, but Dad always believed that if you give birds the best care, the best feed and a whole lot of love, the birds will be healthy,” Miller says. “By making the investment in quality from the outset, there’s no need to treat them with antibiotics.”
A Sumter native who loved hunting and being on the land, Odom declined Campbell’s attempt to lure him to their New Jersey corporate headquarters to oversee all poultry sourcing. He was plenty happy on his home turf, where, when not nurturing healthy chickens, he dabbled with raising Pharaoh quail in his backyard to augment the hunting stock at nearby Manchester State Forest. Before long, friends began asking to buy his farm-raised game birds. Odom realized there was market potential in quail, and thus Manchester Farms was hatched.
“The first birds sold were off the picnic table in our back yard,” Miller says.
Officially launched in 1974 with a hatchery in Dalzell (near Sumter) and moved to the Columbia area after Hurricane Hugo wiped out their facilities, Odom’s Manchester Farms initially raised quail for the retail market.
“Then chefs caught wind of it,” says Miller, who eventually bought out her father’s and brother’s interests and has been owner/operator with her husband, Matt Miller, since 2013. “There was no other commercially raised quail anywhere in the U.S., and we hand deboned every ounce of it,” she adds. “Still do.”
Then as now, Manchester Farms follows Bill Odom’s old-school formula: no chemicals, no growth hormones, no antibiotics.
“Just a lotta love, the best feed and a good, low-stress environment for the birds,” Miller says. A happy quail is a quiet bird, she explains. “We like to walk up to a barn with no sound at all, which means our birds pleasantly happy.”
While their birds aren’t “free range”—quail are more delicate than chickens; even fire ants can be a mortal threat—they are raised in climate-controlled 200-foot barns with plenty of roaming space.
“We give them a safe, healthy place to grow. They aren’t rushed; we’re not pushing them to be a 10-pound bird,” Miller says.
This plus their stringent grading and deboning standards (“it’s an art, some things we’ll never mechanize,” Miller says) ensures the primo quality and consistency that makes Manchester Farms a favorite of top chefs across the country, and the number-one producer of quail in the country. They supply some 80,000 birds a week to meet the growing demand for the flavorful, lean, high-protein meat (fresh and frozen) to grocery stores and restaurants.
In addition, Miller and company have introduced a specialty food line, including bacon-wrapped quail appetizers, available (along with their other products) through their website and Manchester Farms’ office on Garners Ferry Road in Columbia, as well as at Honey Baked Ham stores and specialty grocers. And more recently, Manchester Farms has seen a dramatic growth in demand for a secondary best seller: quail eggs.
“I got a call out of the blue about five years ago from someone asking for quail eggs,” Miller recalls. Though not a mainstay of the American diet, the small speckled eggs with potent nutritional benefits have been revered by Asian cultures for millennia—Japanese emperors ate them for medicinal and healing purposes.
“They’re nature’s perfect vitamin pack,” says Miller. Evidently people are catching on.
Today Manchester Farms’ egg sales represent 20% of their business, up from “maybe 1/100% five years ago,” says Miller, who sells some 300,000 eggs each week (find them at Publix, Harris Teeter, Piggly Wiggly, Ingles and soon at Lowes Foods). Every day she says customers share another amazing anecdote, including one from someone who had vision problems but can now see in color again after eating quail eggs daily; another had serious heart disease that has improved—“his doctor told him that no matter what, keep eating those eggs.”
Miller is a quail egg convert herself, and her parents swear by them. Her mother was having severe muscle cramps related to chemotherapy, but credits the eggs for curing that. And Miller’s father has suffered several heart attacks (that’s why he stepped down from the business in 2008) but since eating four quail eggs for breakfast every day, his arterial sclerosis has reversed and he’s been able to discontinue his blood pressure medicine.
“After having a dermatologic procedure not long ago, he rubbed raw egg on the scar and claims it’s healing faster,” Miller says.
Whether or not there’s scientific evidence behind these claims, Miller is glad to provide a resource for health-conscious customers.
“People are looking for alternative ways to take better care of themselves, and quail eggs have incredible healing power,” she says. Loaded with amino acids and vitamin B, they have only a-third of the calories of a chicken egg but five times the nutritional value.
In the culinary world, quail eggs are popping up on brunch menus, and chefs highlight them sunny-side up on a pizza or served on a toast points spritzed with truffle oil.
“I recently had them deviled with pickled ramps, just delicious,” says Miller, who keeps a bowl of quail egg salad handy in her own fridge and loves their leavening effect when she makes French toast. Her kids snack on hard-boiled eggs—they’ll pop two or three in their mouth as they head out the door.”
Plus, the delicate little freckled orbs are beautiful. Dyed with natural beet juice for artful Easter eggs or pickled for a snack, they are aesthetically pleasing as they are tasty and healthy. So, too, are the full-grown birds, with their dapper brown and white feathers and perky petite stature. And when thousands of fuzzy baby quail hatch every Thursday morning in the Manchester Farms barns, the cute quotient goes through the rafters.
“It’s the most precious thing,” Miller says.
That affectionate tone in her voice speaks volumes for Manchester Farms’ secret to success. Miller and her team love these birds, and care for them as her father taught her, giving them only the best.
“Our family has always said if we surround ourselves with people who have passion for birds, then the birds will be more wholesome.”