Donnie Smith shares why he quit retirement to lead Foster Farms

Love for farming and passion for feeding the world led Smith back to the poultry business after a five-year hiatus.

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Photo: Elise Schafer
Photo: Elise Schafer

Donnie Smith, CEO of Livingston, California-based Foster Farms, revealed during his keynote address at the National Grain and Feed Association’s (NGFA) 127th Annual Convention that he’s often asked why he resumed his career in poultry five years after retiring as Tyson Foods’ CEO.

“People said, ‘What’s gotten into you? What were you thinking getting back into the chicken business after you already had a 36-year career?’” Smith said. “But once my to-do list from the Covid shutdown was down to three items, I was bored. And there's nothing good about a bored Donnie Smith.”

Smith said farming runs in his blood, and despite a 5-year hiatus, he still had a desire to continue his career in agriculture.

“I've done this for 41 years because I love the chicken business; I love the food business,” Smith said. “So at the end of those five years, I had a hankering to go back and I've always had a great respect for Foster Farms.”

Foster Farms, founded in 1939 by Max and Verda Foster, is one of the nation’s largest poultry producers, specializing in fresh, all-natural chicken and turkey products free of preservatives, additives or injected sodium enhancers. Headquartered in California’s Central Valley, with ranches in the Pacific Northwest, the company’s fresh chicken and turkey are produced in or near each region served.

Smith spoke about his values and passion for feeding the world, not only through Foster Farms, but through his work in Rwanda, building up the farm economy in one of the poorest regions of the world.

Smith founded the African Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), which works to bring science-based, agricultural solutions to developing areas of the world with struggling agricultural practices and economies. In Rwanda, for example, the per capita income is $825 and the household income in 85-cents a day.

“Bringing the principles of modern farming to the poorest people on the planet is my most fulfilling work, and it gives me appreciation for what we have in America,” Smith said. “We may complain about it, but the transportation infrastructure is phenomenal, our power grid is dependable, we have access to capital and finance, a safety net in case of crop failure. This is not so in Africa.”

For his work in the U.S., Smith has spent the last nine months as Foster Farms’ CEO, overseeing the growth of its deli meat and frozen food divisions, as well as refining and communicating the company’s culture under its new owners, Atlas Holdings.

NGFA’s Annual Convention gathers hundreds of grain industry leaders in the business of “Transforming America’s Harvest” to discuss the state of U.S. transportation, emerging trends in agribusiness, upcoming policy changes and geopolitical issues influencing U.S. commodity markets.

The 127th Annual Convention, held March 21-23, 2023, at La Quinta Resort and Club, reached the highest attendance since NGFA’s 2010 convention in Lahaina, Hawaii.

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