Gobble Gobble Hey
The Idyllic But Brief Life of a Domestic Turkey is Nothing If Not Mundane
There are 20,000 turkeys on this farm in Fulton in Howard County, strutting and clucking and preening themselves behind wire fences. They bob and tilt their golf ball-sized heads to get a better look at the gawkers who’ve come to see what it’s like to be a farm bird living a free-range lifestyle. Technically, all free-range means is that an animal gets some access to an outdoor space, and the topic is a sore one for some animal-rights folks who say some farms really don’t give their livestock much time outdoors at all. But farmer Gene Iager likes to give the birds enough open space to stretch their legs, peck the dirt, and act like a flock of turkeys. Not necessarily because he’s got a soft spot for the birds, but because it makes them taste better when they hit the table. A free-range bird, he says, one that really has a chance to get as much strutting time as it wants, is a more flavorful bird.
“The birds can come and go, they can be inside or they can go out into the field to exercise or to play or whatever,” he says. When asked what constitutes “play” for a turkey, he thinks before answering: “Well, sometimes they’ll jump up and down. Some will spar each other. Just like kids do. I guess you could call that playing.”
In their corrals, the turkeys compose a shuffling, shifting, bickering sea of white feathers. Their stubbly pink pates and wrinkled wattles, caruncles, and snoods (names for the fleshy growths that adorn the turkeys’ heads and necks) make them look like old men. The turkeys make an otherworldly chatter, a ceaseless clucking and babbling that gets inside your head and doesn’t go away till you’ve put a good distance between yourself and the paddocks where the birds gather and stare. Every so often a large tom, rotund and cocky, fluffs up and calls to the rest of the flock. The noise that comes out of the stocky bird is a throaty gobble, and once he calls, all the other toms get in on the act.
A high-pitched chorus of “gabbagabbagabblegabble,” which sounds not unlike a chorus of crazed laughter, rises, then falls, repeats, then ceases, and everything is quiet again except for the persistent clucking and gurgling of the gossiping hens.
Iager, whose family has owned this farm since 1837, has been part of Maple Lawn’s turkey-raising operations his whole life, and so finds it amusing that visitors are struck by the spectacle of the turkey flock. And it is a spectacle for those who’ve never come face to face with 20,000 birds before.
“You know, you come in here, and you all are amazed and surprised by all of it,” he says. “I just take it for granted, I walk right past.”
These turkeys were hatched earlier this summer on a breeding farm in Canada, with which the Iagers have been doing business nearly since they started their turkey operation 67 years ago. The Iagers don’t breed the turkeys themselves, Iager says, because breeding is a whole business in itself. Domestic turkeys, bred to yield the most meat, don’t breed normally because they’re too heavy, so the hens require artificial insemination to lay fertile eggs. The eggs need to be incubated for 28 days before they hatch, and once the hatchlings are on the ground, their beaks and toes must be clipped because domestic turkeys have a tendency to be cannibalistic—if blood is drawn from one bird, the rest of the flock may kill it. Maple Lawn’s turkey business is a seasonal operation, and every year the farm orders 20,000 day-old baby turkeys, called poults, and has them delivered months prior to the holiday season.
“We get them in June, July, and August, so we have a variety of weights available,” Iager says. “When we get the poults we have them sexed, and we get about 80 percent hens and 20 percent toms. Hens are smaller, and 16 to 20 pounds is about 70 percent of what we sell.”
The turkeys are fattened up, watered, and monitored until the first few weeks of November, when the farm starts processing them for sale to restaurants, local companies (many of which, Iager says, give Maple Lawn Farms turkeys out as holiday gifts), stores, and consumers who come directly to the farm to purchase their holiday birds. They lead fairly peaceful—some might say dull—lives till processing time comes.
“They wake up in the morning, eat and drink, and soak up the sunshine,” Iager says. “That’s about it.”
Iager’s flock makes up a very small part of the hundreds of thousands of turkeys that are grown in Maryland annually. According to the state Department of Agriculture, last year 750,000 turkeys, weighing in at 13 million pounds, were raised in the state. Nationally, some 250 million turkeys will be raised in the United States in 2005. Most of those will be raised in huge factory farms where upward of 25,000 birds will mill about in dark, crowded barns for the duration of their short lives. Darkness, it has been determined by experts, keeps the flock inactive and calm, reducing fights and competition between the birds.
And that’s what makes a farm like Maple Lawn a little different. The turkeys are raised in large, open barns with regular access to the outdoors and daylight.
“Look at this,” Iager says, opening a door on the side of a huge barn to reveal a room full of turkeys that peer back at the intruding visitors. “This building is climate-controlled—curtains over on that side of the building are automated and go up and down,” ensuring that even the birds that choose to remain inside the barn get a bit of sunlight and air.
The birds are raised with no antibiotics or chemical additives, and the turkeys’ dietary needs are overseen by a professional nutritionist who adjusts the protein, fat, and carb ratios in their alfalfa/wheat/corn/soybean diets as needed to keep the birds healthy—and to make sure they get good and plump for the table.
It’s about as idyllic a lifestyle as a holiday table-bound turkey can expect.
“Unfortunately, they were born to die,” says Iager matter-of-factly. “They have a purpose in life, and that’s what it is.”
Fortunately, the turkeys are oblivious to what fate has in store for them. In early through mid-November, Maple Lawn Farm hires 55 to 60 workers to process the flock. The birds are herded through a chute onto the processing line. They walk up a little elevator, then are caught by the legs and lifted into the air. A stun knife knocks them out, their throats are slit, and the birds bleed out. They are dropped into a vat of 142-degree water, their legs are removed, and then they are put into a “picker” that removes the feathers. The gizzards, heart, and liver are removed, and a vacuum sucks out the rest of the organs. The birds are washed, their necks are cut, their legs are cut, then they are placed in a giant vat of ice. Once they cool, they are wrapped and put in boxes according to weight. Up to 2,500 turkeys per day can be processed on Maple Lawn’s busiest days, Iager says. Some are shipped out, but others are sold directly to consumers whose cars line the farms long, twisting driveway from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. right up till Thanksgiving.
“We’ll start processing around the 10th of November,” Iager says. “And people will be lining up out there every day. It’s great for your ego on a bad day.”
Once the processing is over, the Iager family gets back to its regular business of raising registered Holstein cattle. But first, they enjoy a family Thanksgiving, the centerpiece of which is, naturally, turkey. Prepared by someone other than Iager.
“I raise ’em and I kill ’em and I get ’em in a bag and I eat ’em,” he says. “But I don’t cook ’em.”
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Big Scam On Campus (5/12/2010)
Local job-training course raises questions--and alarms
In Need of Assistance (4/7/2010)
The state is implementing new ideas to process social services applications but there are still lags
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