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Feast's main course has beginnings at local farm

November 27, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

By today, more than 500 turkeys that lived in pens on Harold Williams' 160 acre farm will have ended their five-month-long stay in the care of the Williamsport family.

"Thanksgiving is maybe three-fourths of the business," said Williams, 53, who, with his wife, Louise, has owned the turkey farm between Clear Spring and Williamsport for 16 years.

Christmas accounts for the rest of the Mennonite family's turkey business, but the family also raises dairy cows and grows produce.

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There are too many turkeys to get attached to any one, Williams said. He noted, however, that the gobblers make pretty good watchdogs.

In July the Williamses start to get their supply of between 500 to 600 day-old turkeys, or poults, which must be kept warm in order for them to grow into desirable turkeys for the holiday season.

"The older they are the tougher they get," Williams said, noting that very few of the turkeys on his farm are old.

A tip from Williams: Customers would "have a much better meal if they had a capon, but Thanksgiving says turkeys, so that's what we give them."

Capons, which are castrated roosters, traditionally weigh between nine and 12 pounds, and Williams said they are more moist, tender and juicy than turkeys.

He said he starts raising young turkeys at four different times to ensure that they vary in size as adults.

Raising turkeys is not an exact science. One year customers want 18 pound turkeys while the next year, he said, they want 20 pound gobblers.

The problem is, turkeys grow in ranges of feast sizes, he said. Sometimes his customers leave with bigger or smaller birds than they wanted. But, he said, most customers are regulars and are understanding.

"The mental stress is getting the right turkeys for the right people," he said. "Most of the customers realize we're working with live animals."

On this day, a woman who didn't want her name published picked up a live turkey that she ordered with the specification it be 18 pounds once cooked.

Williams said that for every five pounds the turkey weighs when it's alive, it weighs one pound less in the roaster.

The woman planned to pluck the bird's feathers and use its other parts for other dishes aside from a traditional roast turkey.

The Williams family eats whatever is left over from the batch of turkeys they raise for the holiday season. This year, the family will have about 25 family members at their Thanksgiving dinner table. Two years ago, 65 people gathered at their house for the holiday.

On this day, the Williamses took a break from processing the turkeys. The following day, between 200 to 300 turkeys were to meet their fate at the hands of Williamses extended family members, who take on jobs that include catching, butchering and cleaning during a nearly day-long process.

"We do it in a very humane way," Williams said.

He said that most years, after the holiday season the family says it won't raise turkeys again. But after a break from their feathered friends, Harold Williams said turkeys begin to arrive.

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