MODESTO — Bob Shipley meant to go to law school but ended up in the company of young pigeons favored by fine chefs.
He will retire Friday after 32 years as president of Squab Producers of California, a Modesto-based outfit that is the nation's largest processor of this kind of poultry.
Shipley has seen it through good times, when a strong economy built demand, and tougher times more recently with the rising cost of corn, which is 90 percent of the birds' diet.
"This company is healthy and comfortable, but not as profitable as it was in the '80s, '90s or early 2000s," he said Thursday at the plant, just east of Crows Landing Road.
The company is a cooperative owned by 65 squab growers, most of them in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and others as distant as Marysville and Fresno. It was founded in the Bay Area in 1943 and moved to Modesto in 1983.
Dalton Rasmussen, a Hughson-area squab grower with experience in food processing, will be the next president.
The plant handles other niche poultry, such as a small chicken known as poussin and a black-skinned type called silkie. It also processes under contract for other specialty poultry companies.
The 35 employees handle about 60,000 birds of all types per week, wearing smocks and gloves and taking other precautions for food safety.
Squab, still the signature product, sell for about $23 apiece online. The birds yield a dark, moist meat that was treasured by the ancient pharaohs.
Today's product is sold mainly to high-end restaurants around the country, to Chinese New Year celebrants in San Francisco and elsewhere, and to Asian export markets.
"So many chefs consider squab to be their favorite poultry, but it's expensive," Shipley said.
Squab is a rarity at stores and restaurants in Stanislaus County, despite its leading role on the farm side.
Growers in 2011 raised 518,032 birds and received about $1.9 million in gross income, a tiny piece of the $3.1 billion from all farm products, according to the county agricultural commissioner.
The pigeons, of a type different than those found in city parks, are raised in wooden boxes with one side open to the sun. Males and females mate for life and share in the care of the babies, which are sent to market at four weeks.
"The birds take care of themselves," Shipley said. "Our job is to manage the breeders and try to keep them as happy as we can."
Shipley has served as chairman of the California Poultry Federation, a Modesto-based group that mainly deals with the far larger chicken and turkey industries.
"He was one of the most dynamic and innovative chairmen we have had," president Bill Mattos said, "and he was one of the most active small-market members we have had."
Mattos said squab likely will not grow into a major product but will still serve niche markets "in the Asian community and white-tablecloth restaurants."
Shipley studied rhetoric at the University of California at Santa Barbara, with the idea of moving on to law school. A management job at a supermarket chain led him eventually to the food-processing business.
He is retiring at the same time as his wife, Kathy Shipley, chair of the liberal studies department at California State University, Stanislaus. They have two sons.
Rasmussen, who will start his new job at Squab Producers on Monday, also has been working as production manager at SupHerb Farms, an herb processor in Turlock.
"I really do think that there's a lot of opportunity for squab," he said. "I also think there's a lot of opportunity for custom processing at the plant."
On the Net: Visit www.squab.com to place orders or get more information about Squab Producers of California.
Bee agribusiness writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.