What do turkey farmers talk about when they get together? “Cows,” says Jim Rischer (he’s joking).
Rischer is a second-generation poultry man, and although he’s not on “Turkey Row” in Duxbury (a dirt road off Route 53 that was home to many turkey barns), he still enjoys talking shop with fellow producers. There are only a handful of turkey farms left in Massachusetts and those that remain are mostly family-owned and operated.
Rischer, 66, proprietor of Raymond’s Turkey Farm in Methuen, likes to gobble about the raising cost of feed, real-estate taxes, poults (baby fowl), and even the price of poly bags. His birds are fed with the same old-style feed that his father concocted 40 years ago, and is made to order by a mill in Taunton. When corn and soy market prices rise, so does the price of a Raymond turkey. Compared with a mass-produced Butterball, buying a locally raised turkey from Raymond’s will cost you about $3.89 a pound.
Eight thousand fresh birds were sold for Thanksgiving, and although Rischer expects to sell a few hundred birds for Christmas, he says pot pies are more popular this time of year. Once the holiday rush is over, there’s an unusual lull, followed by the cleaning and maintenance of the barns in preparation for spring breeding and hatching. The Globe recently talked turkey with Rischer.
“I never get attached to any of the turkeys. They don’t have names or personalities. It’s a business like any other business. They are smart birds, though, and very curious, and act according to their natural instinct. They do certain things that all turkeys do.
“I know turkeys very well. I grew up raising the birds and live near the barns. The birds are raised today the same way my dad did four decades ago. His name was Raymond, and I’m Raymond James, thus the name of the farm. A turkey is no better than the farmer behind it – you have to know what you’re doing if you grow any type of animal. Ours is a multi-generational operation; my son helps take care of the flock; my daughters work in the kitchen and even the grandkids are helping out.
“We process or slaughter the turkeys when they’re about 21 weeks old and weigh between 13 and 30 pounds. They gain about a pound a week until they get to their allotted size. Just before Thanksgiving, we slaughter about a thousand birds a day. It’s all done humanely — the birds are stunned and unconscious when they go out. It’s a lot of labor as well as paperwork and we need to follow strict USDA regulations. Then they’re plucked by a feather-picking machine, packed and chilled, and put in a cooler. A landscaper takes the feathers and turkey manure and mulches them out for compost. Larger plants in Minnesota that do as many as a million turkeys burn these byproducts for energy, but we’re just a small operation.
“Spring is our breeding season; it’s done artificially. My son and I inseminate about 900 hens, about 450 a week then set the eggs in the incubator. There are two large incubators that can warm 15,000 eggs. The eggs start hatching at the end of April and are set to hatch at certain times so we get the sizes we want for the fall.
“The downside of being a turkey farmer is that I’m working 24/7, especially on the holidays. By the end of the 14-hour days, with lines stretching out the door, I just want some down time. I’ll just stay home for Christmas and spend a nice quiet day at home. There will be a turkey breast roasting in the oven and my kids will stop by. I love roasted turkey breast with gravy and even often have turkey two to three times a week even when it’s not the holidays. And my wife has a turkey sandwich every single day. After all, turkey is very good for you, you know. It’s high in protein and amino acids.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at email@example.com.