If you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, probably one of the most important decisions you can make for your Thanksgiving dinner is what kind of turkey you’re going to serve. Unfortunately many of the things we should know when buying our Thanksgiving turkeys have been hidden from us.
A while back I had the chance to speak with a former turkey farmer, George “Buddy” Black, about his poultry business. To help shed some light on the importance of understanding where our food comes from, I wanted to share that conversation with you, and George graciously agreed. So let’s talk turkey!
Q: George, tell me a little about how you got into the farming business?
A: I was adopted into a rural farming family in the fertile river valley of Arkansas. I was raised on a small to mid-sized farm where all aspects of life were observed—from birth to death and everything in between. Over the years our family farm grew to several hundred acres, and we raised corn, wheat, soybeans, and cattle. Only later did we add a contract poultry and commercial dairy milking operation.
Q: How did you end up farming turkeys?
A: As we grew our farm, poultry farming seemed like the perfect fit for us. At first we raised chickens thinking not only could we use the chicken manure as fertilizer for our crops, but also use poultry farming to provide another profit stream. In 1990 we switched from raising chickens to turkey—the chicken business had already become very competitive, and we thought raising turkeys would be more profitable.
Q: How big was your farm?
A: Originally we had three chicken barns that we converted. Then we built an additional six, state-of-the-art turkey barns. Although this left us in HUGE debt, we were producing a minimum of 250,000-300,000 turkeys a year.
Q: How was poultry farming different than other forms of farming you’ve done?
A: As a contract poultry farmer you really don’t have ANY flexibility in your operation. Let me explain a little.
As independent farmers who raised beef, dairy and row crops the freedom was all ours. We had the flexibility to grow what we wanted and invest in the spots where we saw greater profit margins. We had the opportunity to work with nature and build our lives and our children’s lives. We had more of an upper hand on our business and where we wanted to invest—so year to year that might mean planting more corn and less wheat, or to expand or shrink our dairy—growing as we deemed acceptable, how, where and when we wanted.
Contract poultry was none of this. Corporate supplied the birds, feed, medications, and veterinary expertise, and by contract they received a constant supply of birds that were predictable in size, weight, health and harvest percentages. In exchange the farm received free fertilizer (from the poultry manure) and a minimum pay scale per bird plus bonuses if feed conversion, mortality, grade-ability were above the industry set standards. Theoretically we had the “freedom” to run the business as we pleased, but corporate really controlled most the variables, and when you signed up, you were locked into that company for 5 years. It’s frightening to look back now and see just how bound we were to the corporate ways. Yikes!
Q: When did you first realize your move into turkey farming might be a mistake?