Disproving rumors and monitoring the chickens is all in a day’s work
“Protein for all” is the driving idea behind 2015 Poultry Science graduate Sarah Wilbourn’s desire for success. For Wilbourn, poultry science is more than just “working with chickens,” it is the cultivation of innovative solutions for the agricultural industry.
Wilbourn minored in Hunger Studies and ties the knowledge she developed in courses like Human Geography, Agriculture Policy and Trade and Community Development. She praises the program for teaching its students to defy the idea that poultry science is easy work.
“There is biology, biochemistry and how the bird functions,” Wilbourn explains. “I wasn’t just learning about the hard sciences of the bird, poultry physiology nutrition, processing and health; I was also learning about social science—why is the chicken so much cheaper? Economics, all sorts of things. You learn how the process works.”
Wilbourn wants to see people who need animal protein, or lack nutrients, to get fed and to have a means of sustainable living.
Growing up in rural Danville, Ala. located between Decatur and Cullman, two of the largest poultry-producing areas in the state, Wilbourn came to Auburn on a poultry science scholarship funded by alumni.
As global markets depend on animal protein, poultry production is in turn a fast-paced, high stakes industry. Chickens must be fed with properly-mixed feed and monitored closely, be transported safely and processed efficiently. If any problem occurs throughout the chicken-product production process, solutions must be resolved quickly or all parties involved could get heavily penalized. This daunting task does not scare Wilbourn.
“I like really fast paced, high level challenges,” Wilbourn says.
Wilbourn says she’s comfortable dealing with the high stakes that comes with poultry science, and wants to solve real world problems. “Chicken is a key factor in feeding the hungry. Chicken is a big factor for meeting the needs people have for protein. It’s cheap, it’s efficient.”
During her time in Auburn, Wilbourn was part of the Student Government Association representing the college of agriculture as vice president. She was also part of the poultry club and helped host alumni events at the college of agriculture, such as The Dean’s Club Tailgate and the Hall of Honor Banquets.
After graduation, Wilbourn took a position at United Egg Producers – a Capper Volstead Farmer Cooperative of U.S. egg producers—as director of animal welfare. Wilbourn’s job was to work with those producers and industry stakeholders to develop and implement animal welfare strategy and administer animal welfare programs.
“The best way to feed people is to have high productivity – to do that we must take care of our animals. Animal welfare and productivity go hand in hand,” Wilbourn says.
Wilbourn would visit chicken farms and egg producers every 60 days in a work cycle. Wanting to expand her coverage of humane treatment to more species of animals, besides chickens, Wilbourn found an opening at American Humane, an animal welfare organization.
Only 18 months past graduation, Wilbourn is now a strategic alliance manager; her position develops relationships that will lead to partnerships with American Humane. She attends industry meetings and events, getting to know key figures and forming relationships with them. Over time, she holds individual meetings with key figures to educate them on American Humane and its standards.
“Food supply is safer and more abundant than ever before,” Wilbourn says. “The [agriculture] industry got there by innovation and technology and really hard work. My job is to highlight what the producers are doing. If they weren’t taking care of their animals, using their technology and innovating, I wouldn’t have a job.”
Every day Wilbourn starts off by reading the news, conducting phone calls with her teammates and the people they work with, then engaging with food chains like Yum Brands Inc. (KFC, Pizza Hut, Tacobell) and grocery stores (The Kroger Company among others) to create partnerships.
Wilbourn’s vision is to end preconceived notions of poor food production.
“I’m a huge believer in finding truth and holding on to it,” Wilbourn says. “The world I work in is full of misconceptions. People believe we use steroids and hormones in poultry and that’s not true. There’s laws against that. People get things from misinformation and articles that aren’t true.”
American Humane highlights the success and innovation of food production in the United States. Even with a model promoting transparency and the better treatment of animals, Wilbourn is still faced with criticism and challenges to improving the perception of the food industry.
Someday, Wilbourn says she would like to work in an upper-level legislative position.
“I don’t set policy, but do carry out policy. Ultimately, I would like to work in a policy-setting position. Policy can set change.”