Firecracker. Relentless. A go getter. Inspiring.
Those are just a few of the words people use to describe Holly Durrence of Freebird Farms in Tattnall County. As one of the few farmers in the region, she’s been working in chicken houses for 20 years. But her story goes well behind a quick narrative on day-to-day operations.
The first woman, and person, in her family to take a career in agriculture, Holly is one of three daughters, none of whom have a career remotely similar, though her great-grandmother, Beulah Howard, had a degree in Animal Husbandry, something that was nearly unheard of back then. The woman who cares for 110,000 chickens says she isn’t an animal person, at all.
A Howard, she married Lew Durrence, after being introduced by a cousin and dating two years. They’ve been married 35 years and have two sons, Ellis Durrence, who is married to Jessica (Kennedy) Durrence, of Claxton and Eric Durrence, who lives in Atlanta.
In her younger years, Holly tried a few different office jobs and spent time working at Fort Stewart, but when her oldest son, Ellis, was born, she decided it was time to take a different approach. She wanted something where she could stay home. As Holly began to share her story about researching chicken farming, she told me, “I’m really tough, I can do that, I thought to myself,” something I already knew to be the case based on everything everyone in the community says about her.
The Durrence’s set out, borrowed the money to build two chicken houses, and embarked on a journey Holly says was “the scariest thing I’ve done in my whole life.” That was in 1995. By 1996, the they had four chicken houses. But the “they” was just on the financial side.
Holly worked the houses and managed everything herself. To this day, no hired help has ever come in to work. Her husband would help at night when needed, especially when it was time to collect the chickens for Claxton Poultry. “I’m not going to pay someone to do what I could do,” she emphasized, “And I’m a perfectionist.”
Holly’s frugality has served them well, especially the point about making sure the chicken houses were completely paid off before they pulled a profit for the family. Until that time, the family of four lived off of Lew’s mail carrier salary. She shared, laughing, that she only uses a clothes dryer when it’s raining, she doesn’t use a dishwasher, and they keep a garden for their own vegetables and fruits.
Holly says she’d wake up, put her boys on the school bus and head out to the chicken houses to work, some days for three hours and some more 7 hours, but she was able to get her boys off the bus every day and make sure everything was in tact with her family all while bringing home an income.
“It’s not a glamorous job. It stinks. But I love it, I love being outside and I love physical labor.” Holly made no qualms about teaching herself everything, too. Whether it was wiring a motor or operating the tractor, she’s done it and continues to do it.
The chicken houses have bound them to their home and made the farming lifestyle their life. Because they haven’t hired help, they don’t travel much together unless it’s during a gap of when the chickens have been collected and when the new chicks are dropped off. Couple that with the fact that Lew worked 6 days a week for 25 years, it’s safe to say ‘work ethic’ isn’t a problem in the Durrence household.
Her husband, Lew, was a postal carrier in Hinesville, but since he retired a couple of years ago, they’ve worked day in and day out together. “I didn’t think I needed any help until he retired,” she said. That was an adjustment in and of itself, though. After basically running the entire operation on her own for 18 years, it was hard to share the duties. It’s opened up the ability for her to volunteer more at the library and in the schools.
She’s not just a chicken grower, though. She’s known all over for her litter campaign, her love of hiking, and painting, which she does in her free time – though it’s hard to find out when that is.
She’s walked 4,000 miles cleaning up litter along the roadsides. An idea that stemmed from her son noticing the trash in the right of way and the recommendation that she should Adopt-a-Highway, she joined the “Literrati” campaign on Instagram. The goal is to have an entire map of the world marked with someone in the area dedicated to keeping the road sides clean. She walks 5 miles every morning, and while sometimes a friend may join her, she doesn’t need anyone to motivate her to get out there to collect several trash bags full of litter every day. Holly even focuses her efforts on educating pre-k classes and school children on the importance of a clean environment.
“If you see a piece of litter, pick it up. If you see a piece of litter, pick it up. We can make the world look better if we pick up all the litter, if you see a piece of litter, pick it up!”
She recently spent another bout on the Appalachian Trail, something she enjoys tremendously and on the side, they grow sunflowers, maintain a wishing tree, and spend time with their granddaughter, Ella.
Holly said there isn’t anything she’d rather do. She says every night when she lays down to go to sleep, she asks herself if she did something to make this world a better place, and if she hasn’t, she will make sure to try again the next day.
“I was raised that there’s nothing I can’t do. I made up my mind that that was what I was going to do, and I did it. And until my leg is dragging behind me, I’m going to do it myself. And with Lew.”
Holly Durrence nominated Danny Durrence for the September All On Georgia – Tattnall ‘Farm of the Month.’