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Bell tolls for turkeys

November 22, 1999

TurkeysBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




WILLIAMSPORT - Shrill warbles came from the turkey pen on Harold E. Williams' farm, but the big birds didn't seem worried that Thanksgiving was approaching.

The clicks, clucks and whistles they make are normal noises and not necessarily the sounds of fear. They flutter idly and waddle around a few fenced-in acres.

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Williams and his wife spent Monday getting turkeys ready for this year's Thanksgiving celebration. They raised about 500 baby turkeys, called poults, and took about 300 orders.

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Now it's harvest time and they were busy killing, plucking, cleaning and dressing turkeys. It's a task many consumers avoid. "Most people stay on this side of the door," said Louise Williams.

"They don't want to see or smell the works," said Harold Williams, emerging in black apron and boots.

What might seem to be grim reality might also be what prompts people to buy fresh turkeys. "It's knowing where they come from," said Williams. "They're not growing in cages or coops and they're processed fresh."

Two to three weeks can pass between the time a bird is killed and it roosts on a supermarket shelf, according to Williams.

Farmers like Williams boast of a tastier product that goes quickly from farm to plate.

It's a growing industry. In 1985, about 260,000 turkeys were raised in Maryland with total sales of $2.3 million, according to the State Department of Agriculture.

Last year, 49 farms in the state raised 600,000 turkeys, according to spokesman Dan Vandrey. That's 15 million pounds of poultry with total sales of $6.4 million. Vandrey said the increase reflects farmers' efforts to diversify.

The Williamses primarily operate a dairy farm. They buy poults from a hatchery in Michigan, getting them when they're a day old. They raise males (toms) to between 20 and 28 pounds and females (hens) to from 10 to 25 pounds. It takes 16 to 20 weeks for the turkeys to reach the desired weight.

They get batches every two weeks so they'll have a variety of weights.

"You've got to have the right size turkey for the right person," Williams said.

He sells birds at $1.39 per pound; customers can order at 301-223-8048. Williams expects to sell out for Christmas and New Year's Eve, but he won't waste leftovers.

"I'll put some in the freezer and call some friends," he said.

Gary Boll runs a larger operation at Whispering Pines Turkey Farm in Mount Airy, Md. Each year, he raises about 12,000 small hens in three batches for Wampler Foods, a corporation with headquarters in Dayton, Va.

He added turkeys to his hog and crop farm in 1987. He started with half as many poults and expanded in 1995.

The hardest part is the first week after a batch of baby turkeys arrives, Boll said.

"It's a lot of labor and management," he said. The poults have to be hand-fed and watched around the clock. They need proper heat and can crowd each other, posing a risk that some will be smothered. In the first week, a group will eat 3 tons of feed, he said.

Boll also raises about 200 turkeys of his own for seasonal sale.

Ross V. Smith Jr.'s business is booming in Thurmont, Md. Hillside Turkey Farms raises about 150,000 birds a year and ships them all over the United States.

It's been a turkey operation since 1929, but Smith took over in 1970. His son became owner this year.

Although they also raise chickens, the family concentrates on turkeys and turkey products such as salami, bologna, sausage and smoked turkey. Smith raises some toms to weights of up to 40 pounds. He said genetics and breeding have made it possible to grow bigger turkeys.

"The turkeys we get today are a heck of a lot better than 20 years ago," he said. "We get a better bird to start with."

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