Founders of Foster Farms, Max and Verda Foster, in 1939, with
their original house (above). Opposite page, Ron Foster, the third
generation in the family business, grills the farm’s tasty product.
By T. Foster Jones
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I love chicken.
Like many people, I also had no real grasp
of how chicken magically ended up in the
refrigerated section of my local Costco.
;at changed on May 4, 2010, when I
visited Foster (no relation) Farms.
Now, I’ll be honest—a few weeks before
this trip, I had watched a documentary that
paints a pretty dismal view of the beef and
chicken industry. So, I admit, I was biased
before I even showed up. I thought I would be
witnessing miserable, gene-spliced “
Franken-chickens” being raised in nightmarishly toxic
living conditions by similarly unhappy chicken farmers. I was pretty sure I would be exposed to employees su;ering harsh working
conditions in a mind-numbing processing-factory environment.
Boy, was I wrong.
Blast from the past
;e town of Livingston, California, where
Foster Farms is headquartered, is about 20
miles south of Modesto, right smack in the
center of the state.
Livingston itself, with a population of
about 13,000, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it
speck on the map, hardly where one might
expect to ;nd the West’s leading producer of
poultry, a family-owned and -operated business that produces close to 2 billion pounds of
poultry products each year.
Driving through this wide-open, primarily agricultural area on a sunny, blustery day,
I get the impression that nothing here has
changed much in the last century or so.
Whether it’s cultivating crops, raising livestock or producing dairy, equipment has been
upgraded, processes have evolved, but the
kind of people drawn to working the land,
what they do, and the values and the traditions of this way of life have not varied that
much from previous generations.
It’s in this serene throwback of a setting
that I meet Ron Foster, current CEO of Foster
Farms, and grandson of Max and Verda Foster,
the couple who started the farm more than 70
A tall, a;able man in his early 50s, Foster
warms quickly when speaking of his family,
speci;cally his grandfather, with whom he
shared a close relationship while growing up
on the farm.
“I have many fond memories of growing
up in a family business, learning the importance of ‘doing things right,’ ” he says, explaining that he started by working summers in his
grandfather’s dairy operations when he was in
high school. “One of the lessons taught to me
was that I was responsible for my actions and
the consequences of them.
“Foster Farms continues to be run by the
core values that were instilled by Max and
Verda since the company’s inception,” he con-
tinues. “Excellence, honesty, quality, service
and people. ;at is one of the advantages of
being a private, family-run company. We can
focus on the long term. We strive to uphold
He adds, smiling, “I’m not going to mess
I’m not surprised by the responsibility
Foster feels toward the legacy of his family
name. What does take me by surprise is the
responsibility he says he feels—and the pride
he takes—toward the process of raising chickens, as it relates to the chickens’ overall well-being and happiness. What di;erence does it
make if they’re happy?
“A happy chicken is a healthy chicken,”
he explains. “A healthy chicken is a quality
chicken. ;at’s what our customers want.”
I have to say, I am still skeptical. I think
we’ve all heard plenty of company reps pay lip
service to the gods of quality, honesty and excel-
lence, meanwhile doing the exact opposite.
But then Foster takes me through an entire
day devoted to the chickens, from egg laying
and hatching to housing to the processing
And he begins to convince even me.
But ;rst, a (very) brief history of the
United States chicken industry.
In the 1930s, chicken-meat production,
previously a subsidiary of the egg industry,
began with the development of the broiler—a
chicken raised speci;cally for eating.
JULY 2010 ;e Costco Connection 23
Foster Farms was founded in 1939 when
Max and Verda Foster borrowed $1,000 against
their life insurance policy to buy an 80-acre
farm near Modesto. While Max worked as a
reporter and the city editor at ;e Modesto Bee,
Verda concentrated on raising turkeys. By
1942, the couple’s venture had succeeded to the
point that Max quit his job at the newspaper
and committed himself to the family business
full time. By the late 1940s, the company had
expanded into chickens and dairy cattle.
When poultry production was revolutionized by the rise of large supermarkets, and
evolved into a highly integrated and automated
business, Foster Farms jumped right in. In
1959, Max and Verda bought a processing
plant in Livingston, incorporating new technology that sped up the tasks.
In the 1970s, son Paul Foster (Ron’s father)
introduced and developed the concept of
brand-naming the company’s chicken, something that had not been done in the broiler
industry. By 1987, Paul’s brother Tom, with the
support of another brother, George, continued to grow and build the business into the
largest chicken producer on the West Coast.
;e company now has plants in Alabama,
California, Louisiana, Oregon and Washington,
and produces a variety of chicken and turkey
products, from whole fryers to corn dogs.