No post-Thanksgiving rest for weary turkey farmers
METHUEN, Mass. (AP)--You'd think a turkey farmer would get a day off once the Thanksgiving bird reaches the table. Jim Rischer gets something far less--at best.
"I try to work a half-day instead of a full day," said the patriarch of the family that owns Raymond's Turkey Farm. "Then I get ready for Christmas."
After selling 10,000 birds in the three days leading up to Thanksgiving, the Rischers have to reload to sell 2,000 more before Christmas.
Then they have to scout out breeding stock. Then they have to plan the spring hatch. Then they have to manage growth through the summer heat. And by late fall, it's time for another holiday harvest, when they sell more than half of the 20,000 turkeys they raise each year.
The same cycle plays out annually across New England at the dozens of family-owned turkey farms offering an alternative to commercial processors.
"People just see how busy this is this week," Rischer's wife, Patt, said as the first customer arrived at 6:20 a.m. "It's busy all year."
There were no complaints from her son, Jamie, sporting a pair of work gloves and bundled against the outdoor cold.
"I love the excitement," he said. "It's a rush for me."
Associate Agriculture Commissioner Scott Soares said Massachusetts also gets a jolt from the activity.
"With that surge comes the additional employment opportunities," he said. "They bring in part-time help to get them through this holiday rush."
Recent video of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin holding a news conference while a turkey grower slaughtered his birds in the background created an Internet sensation. Here, birds roam in covered pens, their concrete floors buried beneath wood shavings, food and water available in automated bins.
When it's time for slaughter, the turkeys are knocked out with an electrical charge before being processed by both hand and machine.
Raymond's started in 1950, when Raymond and Claire Rischer, a plumber and nurse, were given two dozen birds by one of her grateful patients. The couple were interested in working for themselves, so they decided to raise the turkeys.
They expanded their flock as they moved from the family's garage to a 100-acre former dairy farm near the New Hampshire state line. Raymond has since died, but Claire lives in the farmhouse attached to the red barns and concrete silo that make the farm a local landmark.
It is now run by their son and his wife, Jim and Patt, and their three children, Jamie and sisters Vickie and Kim. And Vickie's 17-year-old son, Chris, is part of the fourth generation. The high school senior skipped classes the early part of Thanksgiving week to help at the sales counter.
"I've been working around here since the third grade," he said. "Whenever there wasn't a baby sitter around, they'd say, 'Go down to the farm.' There was always something to do here."
Jim and Jamie are in charge of the birds, and they have to carefully calculate the egg-laying and egg-hatching to ensure a steady supply of birds and to meet the peak demands at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
Eggs are incubated in a room with precisely controlled temperature and humidity, the latter important so chicks can poke through a tender shell. Chicks then move to a room with a floor whose temperature is lowered weekly in 5-degree increments to ensure the birds transition properly to the outdoors. Then they're moved to the pens, where they are separated by age and sex and fed a diet that changes every four weeks.
The birds are kept for about 22 to 24 weeks, longer than the 16 to 18 weeks for most commercial turkeys.
Soares, from the Agriculture Department, said customers get a chance to support their local identity when they shop at a local farm.
"And knowing where your food is coming from is increasingly important to some people as they grow more concerned about the security of agricultural products," he said.
At the farm stand, Patt, Vickie and Kim use Claire Rischer's recipes to make stuffing, butternut squash, mashed potatoes, turkey pies and other products sold at the farm's retail store. Gravy is made with stock from birds roasted on site.
The cooking largely stops Thanksgiving week, as the family adopts an all-hands-on-deck approach to the holiday sales rush. Most customers make reservations to ensure they can get the size bird they want. This year uncooked turkeys sold for $3.09 a pound, more than triple the supermarket price, amid rising costs that included a 50-percent hike in feed prices.
Each year, the activity peaks the day before Thanksgiving, when the last customer walks out the door with his bird. But life on the farm requires that someone work the holiday, and each year, there are inevitably four or five panicked people who show up at the farm, looking for a replacement for a botched supermarket bird.
Jim always sells them one, and he's on hand as many others head to the malls the day after. The customers then are the people who ate their holiday meal at someone else's house and now want to cook a bird of their own. The business will steadily increase until Christmas, after which Jim and Patt leave the farm behind to their kids and spend three weeks each winter month at their condominium in Naples, Fla.
Asked if he was looking forward to the break, Jim Rischer chuckled.
"I bought the tickets in August," he said.