Turkey farmers like Charles Wampler Sr. are a plucky breed.
"My father is generally considered to be the father of the modern turkey industry," says Charles Wampler Jr.
"He was the first man to grow them artificially. The first man to take eggs and hatch them in an incubator and put them in a brooder and grow them with an oil stove. That was in 1922."
Fifty years later, the Wampler family turkey farm is the largest in Virginia.
Wampler Foods Inc. of Harrisonburg will grow and process more than 5 million turkeys this year, about half of the total state production.
Many of the turkeys that will be gobbled up this holiday season will be homegrown birds.
Turkey breeding is a big part of Virginia's agricultural economy. According to the 1978 census, there are 276 farms in Virginia that produce turkeys, 260 of which had sales of $2,500 or more. Virginia's annual production has grown from 6 million birds in 1974 to projected 1980 output of 10.3 million, making it the sixth-largest turkey-producing state in the country behind Minnesota, North Carolina, California, Arkansas and Missouri.
In contrast, Maryland turkey growers will contribute about 103,000 turkeys to the 167.6 million that will be produced in the United States this year. The state has four major growers and the turkeys are usually sold fresh to local markets and restaurants or directly to individuals.
Some turkey farmers are in it for the money. Some have other reasons.
"We do this because it's custom and a habit," says Ellsworth Iager, who grows and process about 5,000 turkeys a year on his 1,100-acre farm in Fulton, Md. Most of his income is derived from the sale of diary cattle and milk and a grain drying operation.
Iager is president of Maple Lawn Farms Inc. His two sons and three other regular employes run the turkey operation. "I just countersign the checks and get in the way," Iager said.
Unlike Wampler, who sells his turkeys year round, Iager does all his business during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period. He will sell 3,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving and the remainder for Christmas dinners. Half of the turkeys are sold at the farm directly to consumers, and the other half are bought by local companies to give their employes.
The turkeys, which range from 14 to 40 pounds, will go on sale tomorrow night at Maple Lawn. People come from Washington and Baltimore and as far away as West Virginia to buy a freshly killed turkey from Iager. "It's hell out here," Iager says. "We don't have enough parking room."
Iager's turkeys are franchise birds. He buys the eggs from a California Breeder for $1.35 apiece.
After hatching they are put on a strict feeding, medication and vitamin program. In six months they will be full-grown, white-feathered, Maryland broad-breasted turkeys.
Iager has his own dressing facility, which automatically kills, plucks and cleans the turkeys at a rate of 100 an hour. They are weighed, tagged, packed in ice and sold under the name of Show Nuf for $1.10 to $1.30 a pound. Iager boasts that his birds are meatier than most commercial ones.
Like Iager, most of Maryland's turkey farmers do not rely on the birds for their livelihood. Turkeys are not the easiest animals to raise, being quite sensative to changes in the environment as well as avian maladies. "They're dumber than chickens," Iager added.
Ten years ago there were 15 farms in Maryland producing 2,500 turkeys or more a year. About six or seven years ago, according to Iager, federal and state inspectors came in and ordered their processing equipment and methods modernized. Most farmers couldn't afford to invest in the dressing equipment to meet the various inspection standards and got out of the turkey business.
In Virginia the majority of the turkey business is situated in the Shenandoah Valley region. Wampler said that his father started it there and "that's just the way it's been."
The big three are Wampler, Rocco Turkeys Inc. and Westdale Hatchery, all in Harrisonburg.
Wampler's operation is completely self-contained. He has his own turkey hens to provide the eggs, a hatchery, feed mill and a processing plant. Wampler uses more than 100 contract growers, farmers who are paid to raise the turkeys. When they are ready, Wampler trucks pick up the turkeys and take them to the processing plant.
His Valley Star brand, both fresh and frozen, is sold to meat companies and retail supermarket chains from Washington to Boston.
All Wampler's turkeys have been genetically designed with white feathers. The white feathers leave no mark in the meat like the "old" bronze turkeys did, and they are easier to pluck, Wampler explained. Where it used to take 24 weeks to grow a 20-pound turkey, improved breeding, nutrition and management now make it possible to grow a 22- to 24-pound tom in just 19 weeks. The amount of feed it takes to accomplish that has also been cut from 5 to 2 1/2 pounds per bird.
"we've taken all the romance out of the turkey business," Wampler lamented. "You don't see them on the hills anymore. They're all inside."
They've also taken the romance out of the turkeys. The birds are separated by sex at a tender age and reach maturity without ever encountering a member of the opposite gender. "We got them so big an heavy that they can't mate," Wampler said. "We have an outfit that does nothing but go around and inseminate turkeys. There's no such thing as natural breeding. They're just too damn clumsy."