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Talking (and eating) turkey

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WORLD Radio - Talking (and eating) turkey

Ever wondered where your Thanksgiving meal comes from?


Photo courtesy of Kim Henderson

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 10th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re glad you’ve joined us today.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

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REICHARD: Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Turkeys. With Thanksgiving just two weeks away, our feathered friends are once again in the spotlight. But producing turkey meat products is really a year-round business. And there’s no better place to observe turkeys than Minnesota, the turkey capital of the United States.

EICHER: Farmers there raise more than 40 million turkeys each year. WORLD Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson recently visited one of those operations and brings us this report.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: You’ve heard the nursery rhyme, “This little piggy went to market . . . “ Well, three days from now at Fahlun Farms, it will be, “This little turkey went to market . . .” Only these birds aren’t so little.

VLAMINCK: Our goal is to get them up to somewhere between 42 to 48 pounds, that’s what we're looking to market . . .

That’s 52-year-old Jake Vlaminck, general manager of Fahlun Farms. He’s showing me a barn full of ready-to-go toms, male turkeys. That’s all Vlaminck grows, not the 15-pound hens that end up on a Thanksgiving table. The meat of Vlaminck’s 45-pound toms goes on your deli sandwich and in packages of ground turkey and turkey bacon.

VLAMINCK: They're really excited to see us. They're actually looking to pick a fight. They're really aggressive at this age. If I went into that barn, they'd be clawing and scratching me and jumping on me. So it's very, it's very challenging at this age, because they're getting excited about being adults.

Excited enough to push one turkey through a closed gate. Vlaminck manhandles his bird, a Nicolas Super Select, back into the pen.

It’s a noisy place, because they’re all males. You see, it’s toms that gobble. Hens just make a clicking sound.

AUDIO: [TRUCK CRANKING]

By the time these turkeys leave, they’ll be almost 5 months old. The process really starts at the brooder site. It’s a different set of barns.

Right now, they hold 40,000 brand new turkeys.

VLAMINCK: We get them in at one day of age. And we place them in little boxes and keep them a little cardboard tents basically . . .

But getting the barn ready for the new placement was a job, too. It has to be a perfectly sterile environment.

AUDIO: [BARN NOISE]

The barn is washed top to bottom. Tons of wood shavings for the floor are brought in.

And before Vlaminck and his 10 employees can enter the space, they have to pass through a biosecurity process. Disease is a big threat.

VLAMINCK: We're going to just kind of dip the soles of our shoes in this little bit to get any contaminants off. We'll put on some plastic booties . . .

The metal-sided barn houses an intricate system of feeders and water lines. It’s a purposeful 85 degrees here. Without mothers to help them regulate their body temperature, the babies need it warm.

VLAMINCK: So right now these birds are 11 days old. When they first come, they're very small...

The poults, covered in white feathers and weighing a half pound each, are behind a barrier.

AUDIO: [BIRDS MOVING TOWARD HIM]

But they move toward Vlaminck like an incoming tide when he walks up. Like they’re happy to see him.

VLAMINCK: Yeah, they are. They're always very curious. Quite a social animal.

At this stage, the flock eats a soybean and corn crumble mixture and goes through some 100 gallons of water a day. Vlaminck points out the tip of one bird’s nose.

VLAMINCK: So they basically microwave the tip of his nose a little bit, so he doesn't have a sharp point on it. And then that allows him to eat better, and they can't peck each other so much.

It’s a new process developed by his wife’s cousin. The turkey business is family business in Minnesota.

Vlaminck’s wife, Stacey, is the daughter of a turkey farmer. The sister of a turkey farmer. The aunt of a turkey farmer. So she knew what her husband was getting into after his 20-year career with Fed Ex.

Stacey remembers her dad couldn’t take vacations. He had long days.

STACY: ...and then always did chores in the evening. So he would take off again and go out for an hour to check on the birds.

But technology has brought some changes. Sensors fill automated food hoppers. A system can call Vlaminck in the middle of the night to report malfunctioning heaters.

Still, it’s farming.

VLAMINCK: Every day you wake up, you’re like, “What’s broken today?” Because you know something’s broken . . .

And it’s a job that doesn’t care about calendars.

VLAMINCK: Yep, we're raising birds 365. So a lot of times we have to place birds when they're available since we're dealing with a live product. If it has to come on Christmas Eve, we've done that before . . .

But these days the biggest problem facing Vlaminck and other turkey farmers isn’t the holidays. It’s a labor shortage. He and a contingent from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association recently went to Washington, D.C., to express their concerns.

VLAMINCK: We need more labor to process our birds. If our birds don't get processed at the processing plant, we have to hold them here longer . . .

U.S. turkey consumption has nearly doubled since 1970. The Vlamincks make sure it’s often on their menu. And after our interview, they made sure a freshly ground turkey patty was on mine. Carefully cooked to the recommended 165 degrees.

VLAMINCK: Yep, we’re there . . .

While we’re eating, the farmer gets a call. The loading pickup is scheduled. It’s a done deal.

VLAMINCK: I’m excited. Get rid of those birds.

And that’s how these little turkeys went to market.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Willmar, Minnesota.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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