Prestage gives NCSU's poultry science department $10 million

Prestage Farms gives donation and name to small department

jprice@newsobserver.comOctober 9, 2012 

  • Poultry in North Carolina Broilers, turkeys and eggs generated nearly 37 percent of all cash receipts from agriculture in North Carolina in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Companies here produced an estimated $3.6 billion in poultry and eggs, pushing the state to a No. 2 national ranking in that category. It was also No. 2 nationally in turkey production, with more than 30 million birds.

— One of N.C. State University’s smallest departments supports one of the state’s biggest businesses. And now it’s getting one of the largest gifts in NCSU history.

University officials announced Tuesday that the Department of Poultry Science, which has just 17 faculty members and about 75 undergraduate students, will get a $10 million donation from Clinton-based Prestage Farms.

It will be renamed the Prestage Department of Poultry Science and will become one of just two named departments at NCSU, along with the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Prestage is a family-owned business that contracts with hundreds of farmers in seven states to produce about 1.25 billion pounds of turkey and pork annually.

It was founded by Bill Prestage in 1983 after he spent more than two decades as a founding partner with Carroll Foods, which pioneered some of the methods now used in modern, high-production turkey and hog farming.

Despite its size, the department at NCSU supports an increasingly science-reliant business that generates more than a third of North Carolina’s agriculture income.

Nationwide, though, the number of degree-granting poultry science departments has plummeted from a high of several dozen to just six, partly because of budget cuts and a trend to merge animal-related departments.

John Prestage, himself an NCSU graduate and one of several family members who work with the company, said the family had that decline in mind when they decided to give the money.

“As important as poultry is in the state, we’re very hopeful that by endowing this department that it will strengthen it and it won’t go by the wayside like so many others,” he said.

The idea of an endowment, which could have an impact indefinitely, as opposed to say, giving money for a building, was particularly attractive, he said.

Chancellor Randy Woodson has made boosting the university’s endowment by several hundred million dollars – in part to offset cuts in funding from the state – one of his biggest goals.

Woodson said he is elated by the new donation.

“I’m very pleased that the family would see the impact this department and college has on their industry, and want to make sure that it stays strong in perpetuity,” he said.

Several family members said in an interview that they had been impressed by Woodson and think his emphasis on growing the endowment makes great sense.

The family decided on the size of the gift and what it should go for based on what NCSU officials said the department needed.

“They’re the experts on education, so we listened to them on all that,” John Prestage said.

Distinguished professorship

The investment income from part of the money will be used to create a Prestage Family Distinguished Professorship in Turkey Physiology, Nutrition and Immunology – an array of expertise in several key areas of turkey production.

The rest will be used to strengthen the department in a host of ways, including enhancing its research and outreach missions, said Mike Williams, the interim head of the department.

Between the national decline is poultry science programs and the increasingly sophisticated methods required by the industry, the demand for graduates from the program far exceeds the supply, Williams said.

“The number one thing I hear when I’m out talking with people in the industry is that they need us to send them more graduates,” he said.

NCSU’s poultry department has survived the deep state budget cuts here, but it was not unscathed. It has lost about half a dozen faculty members in the past decade, a big hit for such a small department.

The department has a strategic plan for next five years that includes adding four or five faculty members. Budget realities mean that would have to be done with money from grants or donations, Williams said.

The impacts of the Prestage gift, not just directly, but by helping brand the department in a highly public way, should give the university more leverage to win that outside money, he said.

Poultry faces challenges

The poultry industry is an increasingly complex business. It faces several key challenges that it needs scientific help with, Williams said. These include increased production efficiency to stay competitive, research to help with the demands from the market for animals raised in conditions that give them a better quality of life, and ways to reduce the environmental impacts of animal waste.

The new gift is expected to help his department do all of those things, Williams said – and they’re crucial for keeping the business strong in North Carolina.

“This isn’t just about feeding chickens in the yard,” he said. “It’s a very specific scientific discipline related to raising an important food product.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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