In 1967, an egg’s life was simpler. This was the days before plastic eggs. There were no attacks from the animal activist groups, and no one was accusing an egg of being too high in bad cholesterol.
Ralph Bradley of Centre began his commercial egg company that year and named it Bradley Egg Farm. He and his wife, Ann, had two sons and a daughter who also became involved in growing the company: Jeff, Michael, and Debbie.
In 1971, Ralph and other investors created Weiss Lake Egg Company of Centre. Through the years, Ralph became the sole owner. He died in 2011, but his children are still running the company. They also have brought on board their own children. Aubie, Audra, Josh, J.B., and Kendra work together with their elders to run the second largest egg company in Alabama. They prosper in spite of the hard knocks against the egg in recent years, knocks that would have cracked a less-determined company.
The 10 family members along with 21 employees oversee 440,000 chickens and the processing and distributing of over 205,000 dozen eggs a week that the white leghorn hens produce. That is nearly 2.5 million eggs that move from the chicken to the carton without a human hand ever touching them.
The chickens are housed in four barns where, due to biosecurity risks, no visitors are allowed. From the barns, computer-automated belts and conveyors carry the eggs to the processing plant where they are washed, dried, sized, and graded. Finally, the eggs are packaged in cartons or flats and boxed and placed in an 11,000 square-foot refrigerated room to await shipment. Occasionally an egg will fall from the belts and crash onto the concrete floor of the giant building on Cherokee County Road 59. The floor and machine are cleaned each night to prepare for the next day of the six-day workweek.
The family tries to hold all employees to 40 hours, but the holiday season often requires longer hours.
Many technological advances developed since Ralph’s start in the industry, and many new challenges arose. Bad press from animal activists, incorrect information from nutritionists about bad cholesterol in eggs, and changing markets and regulations call for innovative thinking from the younger generations. Still, the chickens are always foremost on their minds.
The chickens are happy, according to Josh, the son of Debbie. “Unhappy chickens won’t lay eggs,” he said. “Chickens are picky. We keep them watered, fed, and calm. Our feed is all natural, based on soy beans and corn.”
Aubie, an Auburn grad, has a degree in poultry science and knows the rises and fall of egg sales. She said that, in past years, the busiest times were Easter and the holiday season; but now, due to the increased use of plastic eggs, the company is the busiest only during the holidays.
“People cook at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she said, “but no one cooks as much as they used to.”
Nutritionists have concluded that the cholesterol in eggs is the “good” kind. Still, egg production has never rebounded from this falsehood.
The eggs produced at Weiss Lake Egg Co. are branded as Shur-fine, Freshland, and Weiss Lake Pride. Each brand has different colored foam cartons, and each set of cartons has a different color for the different sizes of eggs. It seems like a logistical nightmare to keep that many cartons, brands, and sizes straight. However, the Bradley family has their systems in order and a special room to house the 20-foot stacks of cartons.
A fringe benefit for family members at the company is breakfast. With easy access to eggs, the family pitches in and cooks each morning. They enjoy eating Uncle Michael’s homemade biscuits, sausage, bacon, and a dozen scrambled eggs (for quality-control purposes only, of course).
“Eggs are a source of the cheapest protein,” Jeff, the father of Aubie and Audra, said.. The company has customers as far south as North Florida, as far west and Mississippi and Louisiana, and as far north as Kentucky and North Carolina.
The Bradleys want to thank their loyal customers for the decades of their business, and hope everyone continues to enjoy eggs to enhance their meals and dispel the misinformation about cholesterol and sad chickens.
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