A look at one family’s work to provide
the region with local Thanksgiving turkeys
Photography By Albert Yee
Whether a heritage breed, a Butterball or an approximation formed from tofu, it’s impossible to mention Thanksgiving without talking turkey. The National Turkey Federation estimates that 88% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. That’s almost 50 million birds.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, grocery stores are flooded with frozen birds priced at less than $2 per pound. But these cheap turkeys are raised in closed barns on contract farms, by producers in a kind of indentured servitude where big companies set the prices and dictate what farmers earn, regardless of input expenses.
Mother Jones and the Washington Post are just a few of the many media outlets that have reported on how industry consolidation allows for artificially low retail prices, ones that don’t reflect the costs of feeding and caring for the turkeys, let alone farm maintenance, processing or labor.
Fortunately, there’s a more sustainable way to get that bird on the table of nearly every household in America on Thanksgiving Day. Although industrial-scale turkey production is the norm, the alternative happens on a much smaller scale, and while the finished product is more expensive, the price actually reflects the work and the input costs.
But what does small-scale turkey farming and processing look like? The Howe Farm is a ten-acre, third-generation family farm in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Nate and Julie Howe were high-school sweethearts who married in 2001 and welcomed their first daughter, Emilie, in 2003, and a son, Tyler, the following year. They smile easily, and they’re patient and measured with their kids, a brood that now includes 8-year-old Andrew, 6-year-old Jeremiah, and 4-year-old twins Aubrey and Mallory.
A dry-erase calendar looms large in the family’s kitchen, and November is peppered with occasions. “Harvest Party” on the second, and “Moms Night” on the fifth. The fourth Thursday is Thanksgiving, and the Friday, Saturday and Monday before it are labeled “Kill Day.”
Everybody in the Howe family pitches in each year to raise roughly 3,200 turkeys in two barns on their homestead. That’s a lot of turkeys, but the number is tiny compared to industrial production.
Though they one day hope to be, Nate and Julie Howe aren’t fulltime farmers. “Although the turkey business brings in a big chunk of our income,” says Nate, “it is very seasonal and is not enough for us to live here on the farm.” To support their dream of farming full-time, Nate works with his brother, Doug, in commercial construction while Julie homeschools their children and oversees daytime farm operations. And every year they order in turkey chicks, called poults, and raise birds for Thanksgiving. Then, the weekend before the holiday, the Howes, with the help of their extended family, slaughter and dress each bird by hand.
For the Howe family, turkey season begins in July, when they order their first round of poults. Before the chicks arrive there is a flurry of activity, according to Nate. “We all look forward to the first batch of babies.” They clean and disinfect the barns, feeders, and waterers, and they spread fresh wood shavings.
When the birds arrive, Nate and the older children fetch them, while Julie readies the starter room, a smaller space in one of the barns that they keep between 90˚ and 100˚ to make sure their babies stay cozy.
A week later and the poults are big enough to leave that room for the larger space of the long, narrow barns, the sides of which are screened, so the birds have access to fresh air and sunshine, and protection from predators.
Once the birds are roaming in the barns, Nate keeps an eye on them, adding more throughout the summer, to ensure that by Thanksgiving they’ll have a variety of sizes on offer. He leaves the day-to-day work to his pint-sized crew. The kids help with harvesting the Howe’s springtime crops—asparagus and strawberries—and act as the animal caretakers, feeding and watering not only the turkeys, but also two ponies, two goats, three lambs, two pigs and a dog. When the weather chills and the Howes erase Halloween from the kitchen calendar, the time has come for them to prepare for harvest.
Called the “processing plant” in front of customers and the “slaughterhouse” among family, processing happens in a single-story cinderblock structure on the farm. William Balderson, the farm’s previous owner, originally built the turkey barns and the processing plant. Nate’s father, Lamar, bought the farm in 1988, and 20 years later Nate and Julie bought it from his mother, Mary. Since the farm has been in the Howe family, they’ve updated equipment and added refrigeration space, but processing still remains very much human-powered.
Preparations are human-powered, too. “Everything that touches the birds gets cleaned,” says Nate. The 22 chill tubs and all the drying racks get thoroughly power-washed. Together, the Howes set up the processing room, check the machinery to make sure everything is working, and stock up on supplies like gloves, aprons, bags, ties, knives and boxes. They know from experience that at least 20 people are needed on the line in order for everything to run smoothly. Nate calls and coordinates the folks who will help them. A week before Thanksgiving and the Howes are ready.
It takes three days of sunup-to-sundown work to transform the birds into Thanksgiving centerpieces. From the driveway with its barking dogs, to the pile of boots by the farmhouse door, and into the kitchen full of catering-scale meal preparation, it feels like a family reunion where most of the group spends the majority of the weekend in the processing plant.
Nate and Julie’s days begins at 5am. He fills the tubs that will chill the birds to refrigerator temperature with water and lights a fire in the scalder to ensure that it is hot by 7, when they’ll begin. Julie brews coffee and hot cocoa, so when help starts arriving at 6:30 there’s something warm to greet them.
Everybody, based on age, skill, and expertise, has a job. “To keep things running smoothly,” explains Nate, “it helps to have our help return to the same position on the line, year to year. It takes a group effort to make it all work.”
The littlest of the children stay cozy in the house, minded by Julie and her sisters, who are otherwise occupied with office work; fielding phone calls for turkey orders and managing counts for birds of different weights, all the while preparing the next of several meals and snacks that they will serve throughout the day.
The 5-to-8-year-olds help by assembling boxes with their cousins. A few more years and they might help weigh the birds, bag, label and pack. After that? You work the line.
There’s another job that happens outside of the farmhouse and the slaughterhouse, one frequently taken on by Nate’s brother-in-law. Called “catching,” this job involves driving a Bobcat affixed with a forklift to the barns, picking up long crates filled with live birds and delivering them to the processing building.
The birds walk from their barns into the crates themselves, hunting feed scattered on the floor. Once deposited at the entrance of the processing plant they wait placidly, unaware that anything at all is out of the ordinary.
Perhaps the squeamish reader will find it reassuring that even when the birds are being lifted to hang from their ankles at the start of the processing line, they seem calm. They might beat their wings for a brief moment, but hanging upside down seems to put them in a trance, and there they remain until the end.
Nate himself kills each turkey, which sets the pace for the rest of the line. For each bird, the act is a quick and quiet act. Nate holds the head of the bird in his left hand and wields the knife with his right. The blade, smaller even than an ordinary paring knife, is electrified, and as he draws it across the artery in the bird’s throat the electricity provokes a stiffening. The bird’s muscles go rigid, their wings curling around their bodies like the arms of a ballet dancer about to leap. And then it’s over. Some convulse, involuntary muscle spasms playing out, and in that brief moment, Nate transforms the turkeys from breathing creatures into meat. He then moves them down the line, following a track in the ceiling, and the blood of each bird, still hanging by its feet, falls to a drain in the floor.
Though the moment of slaughter is quiet, the next steps of processing are loud ones. Another worker, dressed in yellow full-body rain gear, receives the birds and uses a set of pneumatic clippers to cut each at the knees, down from their suspension and into the scalder, a long tub of steaming water. A dasher turns them, three or four at a time, submerging them in heat to loosen their feathers.
Then a worker hauls the waterlogged fowl, some now weighing nearly 50 pounds, out and into the drum of the plucker, which looks something like a giant, stainless steel salad spinner. The interior is lined with black rubber fingers and, at the flip of a switch, the birds tumble around inside. Wet clumps of feathers litter the floor, clogging a discard chute, eventually exiting the building through a window. In the belly of the plucker, drumsticks and wings rattle noisily through a minute-long spin cycle and then, rather comically, it ends and the birds hurtle out through a door and onto a chute, as awkward as a troupe of Muppets.
A crowd of teenagers surround the stainless steel chute, inspecting each bird and pulling any feathers that the plucker missed. They then split the skin on the neck, remove the craw (the sack where food is held), and rehang the birds onto another ceiling-mounted track system. The next stop is a station staffed by four Amish women who do one of the most specialized tasks of the day. They disembowel the birds, sending tangles of intestine down one chute, placing livers and hearts in another to later be matched up with birds ready for packing. This means that the turkey you get from Howe will include a heart, liver and gizzard, but that these organs will likely not, in fact, have come from your bird itself.
Typically a nonissue, but Julie laughs about the occasional phone call she fields. “Every once in a while, someone says, ‘I ordered a great big turkey and it came with a tiny little heart!’ ”
Along the back wall is another pneumatic device, menacingly called “the lung gun.” It looks like a cross between a supersized water gun and a handheld vacuum cleaner. A pair of teenagers trade off—it is quite heavy—using it to suck the lungs from the cavity of each bird as it passes by.
By this point, the birds look less like those remaining in the barns and more like what you might pick up at a supermarket. One final processing step completes the transformation. Using a clamp affixed to a table, one of the cousins trims their heads off into a barrel-sized bucket and cuts their necks down to the manageable size that you’ll find among the organs inside your bird.
From there, the birds are added to bathtub-sized PVC tubs filled with ice water, a hose keeping water flowing through them, to chill them quickly. Then they go on racks to dry, and are bagged, tagged, boxed and organized by size in the walk-in refrigerator. Though the processing line moves briskly, it doesn’t feel frantic.
Nate’s mother, Mary Howe, helps him manage the pace. “I’m not the boss, but I’m real bossy,” she says.
A single bird can make the trip from catching crate to drying rack in under a half hour. Just the same, the line is indoors but unheated, and the exposure to water integral to the process makes for chilly work. One day would be exhausting, and to make it through three, Nate and Julie run a tight schedule. The processing line fires up at 7am, they break for morning snack at 9:30, hot lunch at noon, and afternoon snack at 4, as their morning helpers head home. A second group of paid workers shows up at noon to focus on packing the morning’s birds. Though they’ll take one last break for supper, the Howes will be packing until the last bird is bagged, ideally no later than 9pm, but often until after midnight.
Though kill day consumes all the waking hours of Friday and Saturday, the family maintains Sunday as a day of rest. They rise early, feed the remaining birds, check the cooler, have breakfast and head to church. By evening, they are already thinking again about the final day of processing and the pick-up and delivery schedule that will consume the next two days.
Though the Howes’ birds are a tiny fraction of the national annual Thanksgiving turkey harvest, for them, the birds represent a great deal more than a holiday meal. They represent a concentrated cash flow that offers the glimpse at the chance that would allow for the family to become full-time farmers.
Hard work, helpful friends and family, an agricultural dream, and the chance to contribute to Thanksgiving dinners in more than 3,000 households; even on the busiest days of the year, the Howes have plenty for which they are thankful.
LOOKING FOR A LOCAL BIRD FOR YOUR THANKSGIVING TABLE?
Place your order early (most pre-orders start as early as September with deadlines in early to mid-November) and plan to pick up on-farm, or at a local retailer like the Fair Food Farmstand or a food co-op like Mariposa, CreekSide, Swarthmore or Weavers Way.
Esbenshade Turkey Farm
Heritage Bourbon Red turkeys
Princeton, New Jersey
The Howe Farm
All-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free turkeys, processed on-farm
Jaindl Turkey Farms
Koch’s Turkey Farm
Heirloom Bronze turkeys