By Raymund Lee Flandez
DELMAR, Del. – Past the Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s in downtown, you’ll come to the intersection that is the border of Maryland and Delaware.
Line Road stretches for miles, but between the fields of flat, brown farmland, you’ll find Sam Slabaugh’s Evergreen Farms.
Beyond the blue doors of the two-story farmhouse, through a patch of tall trees and down a makeshift road lies the training ground for manhood — three long chicken houses holding $225,000 worth of poultry.
That’s where Fred — Slabaugh’s son, a fourth-generation Delaware chicken farmer and a home-schooled techno-geek — raises chickens with computers.
And he’s only 14.
Sam Slabaugh, a silver-haired, stocky man with a booming voice, wanted his son to learn responsibility in the same tradition that he did with his dad.
He put Fred to work in the family’s backyard chicken houses. Since age 11, Fred has raised about 90,000 white, 5.5-pound chickens at a time, for a total of 450,000 each year.
“The reason I do this is because of Fred,” Slabaugh said.
Ten years ago, Slabaugh worked about 60 hours a week for a construction company, driving all over the Eastern Shore. He realized he was seeing his family less and less and wanted Fred to learn the same values and work ethic he had — through hard labor.
Chicken farming has been a way for them to bond. Too many teen-agers these days grow up without the influence of their parents, Slabaugh said.
The Slabaughs aren’t typical chicken growers, though. They’re efficient and technologically savvy, allowing Slabaugh to work only a few hours a week in the chicken business; he’s also a financial planner in town.
The chicken houses aren’t typical, either. They’re stocked with electronic gadgets that monitor everything — the temperature and water and feed consumption levels. All can be accessed and controlled from Slabaugh’s office computer miles away.
The complex system allows Slabaugh to dial in and get up-to-the-minute information on the chickens’ progress. If something is wrong, he can easily fix it with a stroke of a computer key.
Despite the innovations, the business may take a $20,000 income loss this year, a predicament created by Delmarva’s drought, which wiped out local farmers’ corn and soybean crops and forced growers to import chicken feed from the Midwest at significantly higher cost.
So, the key word to successful chicken raising this year is efficiency. And Fred, the green-eyed skinny kid, is the keeper of that word.
That means the computer that controls the humidity sensors and other vital systems must not break down.
Breakdowns can be costly. Before installing the $20,000 Rotem computer control system this year, the Slabaughs annihilated 7,000 chickens in four hours. There were still bugs in the system and the heat inside the already-warm haven of the chicken house baked them, Fred said.
“It’s an art and a science,” said Fred, covered in mud-stained rubber boots and dark overalls. And luck, he added with a mischievous grin.
Fred makes plenty of his own luck. He gets up with his dad at 5 a.m. and checks on the computer screen to confirm all the monitors are working. Then, together they walk through a length equal to one-and-a-half football fields to inspect all the chickens, looking for sick or injured birds, and every piece of equipment. And Fred makes sure to keep checking every four hours.
“It’s been really neat to see the impact on (Fred),” said elder sister, Laura, 21. “He’s developed a lot of responsibility. It’s neat to see that he takes initiative.”
Others see that, too. Computer makers in Israel, who made the control system, have gotten used to regular updates from Fred, who has forwarded valuable tips to make the software better.
“I call him Dr. Fred,” said Ramy Keissar, supplier for Diversified Imports LLC, which sells the Rotem system. “He’s a right-hand man, uh, boy. He runs the farm by himself usually.”
Fred likes chickens well enough, but he said he would never be a chicken farmer for life. He’d like to work with computers, maybe as a systems administrator or even as computer cryptologist.
He’s already learned computer programs such as C+, HTML, Java, Perl and Python.
“What sparked his interest in computers was that it was totally different from chickens,” said Joy, his 20-year-old sister. He’s had a ton of hours doing manual labor, she added. He wants to do anything but that for the rest of his life.
“That’s why he’s so interested in computers,” Joy added. “It requires his brain.”
In his room next to the kitchen, Fred shows his own little workplace, a desk covered with no less than three computer towers. He kicks a tie and socks under the bed. On a shelf above the desk sits a yellow Beanie Baby chicken named Strut.
Here, away from the chicken houses, Fred can work with relative freedom to program computers and also, his latest goal, to figure out a way to link his computer to the same system his dad uses to check the chickens. It’ll take a lot of planning and a new motherboard to get it running, but, Fred said, he’s up for the task.
But Fred’s no Bill Gates, his family said. He’s just the little brother who teases his three older sisters all the time and who hangs out with their friends; the kid who laughs about his skinniness and cracks computer reference jokes others don’t get; and the son who shuffles his feet when he walks, just like his dad.
Slabaugh said the time spent with his son is beyond price.
“Learning is a way of life,” Slabaugh tells Fred, “not an objective to be captured.”
Fred seems to have gotten the message. He’s already listed what he would like to be when he’s 19: “intelligent, alive, creative, articulate, socially adept, certified in computers,” and most importantly, “out of chickens.”