When it comes to raising turkeys for a Thanksgiving market, timing is everything.
Renick farmer Don Blake learned that eight or nine years ago when he made his first foray into turkeys.
“The first year, I got broad-breasted whites from a farm in Ohio. Everyone said they’re so hard to raise, so I got them the end of May so I’d have time to replace them if they didn’t survive,” he said.
Just one of 26 turkeys died.
“They just grew and grew,” Blake said. By the time they were slaughtered a couple days before Thanksgiving, the smallest was 28 pounds, fully dressed out, and the largest was 43 pounds.
“A guy from Beckley bought the 43-pounder and cut it into four pieces,” Blake said. It served the man’s family through four holidays.
“They say the only thing dumber than a turkey is the man who raises them,” he said, laughing.
This year he bought 75 medium-breasted white poults from a breeder in Lewisburg in June, right before the derecho knocked out his power for 14 days. They survived and have grown to weights that will be much more consumer-friendly come Tuesday, when Blake and some hired help will slaughter them and sell them fresh to customers.
Blake is among a relative few West Virginia farmers who raise free-range turkeys, meaning those not kept in cages, but allowed to roam pastures where they supplement their diet of high-protein turkey feed with grass and grit necessary for their digestion.
Turkeys and other poultry raised in cages - something done by large poultry producers - usually are given antibiotics to keep them healthy. Some are treated with hormones to boost their size.
Blake’s turkeys are raised naturally. He says the result is a superior bird, both in taste and texture.
He moves them to different fenced areas every few days so they can forage in the grass and fatten up.
Blake likes their personalities - they strike poses on one leg when they are happy, looking like a yoga class in session.
They gobble readily to a variety of sounds. Neighbors like to slow as they drive by and honk their car horns to elicit the sound.
“I’ve lost my thrill of that,” Blake said.
(Independent testing reveals the turkeys respond with vigorous gobbles to a variety of sounds, including a human gobbling sound, the word “hello” spoken or sung and coughing. Also laughing.) Blake, 47, isn’t getting rich with this proposition.
He grew up on a farm on the ridge above his property along U.S. 219 here in Greenbrier County, and works by day as a teacher at Davis-Stuart, a Presbyterian Church-run residential treatment center for troubled adolescents.
“I’m a go-getter,” Blake said, all the while apologizing for the condition of things one recent morning on his farm.
Overnight, the pigs escaped their pen and ran amok, trampling and knocking over things in their wake. The water line from the spring-fed tank got clogged, and a plumber had to be called out with a backhoe to fix the problem.
One of the turkeys was roosting away from the rest, a sure sign he was ailing. Breeding has produced larger-breasted birds consumers want, but the top-heavy nature of the birds taxes their hearts. They’re not intended to be long-lived.
“If you were expecting a bucolic farm, this is not it,” Blake said. “This is Green Acres.”
Blake bought his farm, a steeply graded parcel best suited for poultry, from the estate of Ruth Hinkle, who lived to be 98. Her farm was divided into two parcels. Blake got the hill and the houses; another purchaser got the flatter parcel across the highway.
“Miss Hinkle used to raise turkeys here. At one time every farmer around had 100 turkeys,” Blake noted.
When he purchased the farm, he read a book that has become a bit of a cult favorite among small farmers, Virginia farmer Joel Salatin’s “You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed a Farming Enterprise.”
His modest enterprise - about 75 turkeys and 700 chickens he will slaughter himself, eggs from the chickens and a dozen or so pigs that he’ll sell at market - supplements his income decently. Blake estimates he makes 50 percent on top of his investment in turkeys, for example, even though the custom-made, high-protein feed he orders from a mill in Marlinton costs $26 for 100 pounds and his turkeys collectively consume that much a day.
This year’s brood, which will range in size dressed from 15 pounds to 28 pounds or so, will go for $55 to $60 apiece. And the job is finished by the end of November. He’ll keep a few chickens over the winter for eggs and breeding, but winter months essentially are his down time.
Blake relies on word of mouth for selling his turkeys, which he hopes to sell Tuesday afternoon and evening, just about as fast as he and his helpers can kill and pluck them - he has a new custom-made plucker he hopes will make fast work of that job.
“I don’t like to freeze them,” he said of the turkeys. In the future, he’d consider selling them through a farm cooperative that might help transport them to markets beyond Renick.
He’d like to raise many more turkeys and chickens, but says West Virginia’s agricultural regulations hamper him. He’s not permitted to raise and slaughter more than 1,000 chickens or turkeys. To raise more would require he slaughter them at a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved facility. West Virginia has none.
“I’d like to raise 5,000 chickens and 1,000 turkeys,” Blake said.