Ammon Stauffer stood in the brisk fall air, surveying nearly 400 turkeys running around their pen in a swirl of feathers and squawks. He has raised birds like this batch for the better part of 40 years and reserves for them something akin to respect.

"An old saying is that a turkey's aim in life is to die young," Stauffer said with a chuckle, pulling his well-worn denim jacket closer to ward off the chill. "People say they're stupid, but they're not all that stupid."

In less than two months, the large pen on Stauffer's farm in St. Mary's County will be empty, and the turkeys will end up garnished with parsley and served as part of many a Washington-area holiday spread. Stauffer, who sells his turkeys for $1 a pound, has had customers trekking to the farm just outside Loveville for close to four decades.

Some buyers prefer the birds alive, but most pay an extra $2.50 to have Stauffer and his sons do the dirty work. Starting next week, the family will slaughter 80 turkeys a day as orders roll in. The method sounds simple:

"Catch 'em, weigh 'em, kill 'em, scald 'em, pluck 'em, take the innards out, cool 'em, put 'em in a plastic bag, then store them in a cooler," Stauffer explains.

And what about the, er, leftovers?

"Some people ask for the heads and feet for a soup," Stauffer said. "It's just a novelty dish that they had years back and want to try again."

Stauffer is one of a handful of Mennonite farmers in the area who raise turkeys to supplement an income from tobacco and corn. He doesn't advertise, but somehow his customer list grows each holiday season.

"I started off with a dozen [turkeys to sell]," he said. "Then quite a few people started coming from Washington--some keep coming back for 30 years. I don't know how they get in touch with me."

Washington resident Willard Cooper is one of those longtime bird buyers. Nearly 40 years ago, he heard about Stauffer through a co-worker and has since made the journey to St. Mary's County a holiday ritual, bringing back turkeys for friends and family. This year, he ordered 20 for Thanksgiving and 20 for Christmas.

"They taste better," Cooper said of the farm-fresh birds, which are slightly pricier than the store-bought frozen variety. "They're clean, there's no fuzz and all you have to do is pop it in the oven."

CAPTION: Turkeys roam at Ammon Stauffer's farm in St. Mary's County before meeting their fate as the main attractions at many area holiday feasts.