Talkin’ Turkey

By on November 21, 2017

If you are going to prepare a fresh turkey for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday and you didn’t raise it yourself, there is an excellent chance that you will be cooking one raised locally. A number of farms within a 30-minute drive raise small rafters of birds that are dressed and ready for sale just before the holiday at farm stores or local markets.
Many farms and farm stores prefer pre-orders, but also accommodate walk-ins. And with many poultry stands at local farmers markets, there are plenty of options.
Many of the local turkeys come from three of the area’s biggest farms; Sensenig in Lititz, Weaver’s in Leola, and Esbenshade’s (the oldest turkey farm in America) in Ronks.

Eighty-nine year old Bob Esbenshade holds a mature hen at the oldest turkey farm in the country.

Eighty-nine-year-young Bob Esbenshade is up early every day this time of year.
“He comes alive in the fall,” says son Jim, who works with him at the Esbenshade Turkey Farm, the oldest turkey farm in the country, established in 1858. Esbenshade turkeys are sold at markets throughout the county and directly from the farm.
Bob is the fourth generation of the family to run the business and says he started helping his dad at age six in 1934, some 83 years ago, and he doesn’t plan on stopping.
Bob may not work a 12-hour day anymore, and he even takes an afternoon break, but most of the time he can be found in his antique Airstream trailer office not far from thousands of birds that are getting plump for the holiday season (the farm’s busiest time of the year).
A little closer to home, small farms in Lititz, Ephrata and Elizabethtown are dressing and wrapping turkeys for orders, as well as taking care of last minute shoppers at on-site stores or at farmers markets.
Frozen or fresh, roasted, baked, deep friend or cut up and cooked with vegetables in a crock pot are some of the questions that need to be answered in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas as everyone begins to think about the family holiday meal.
In Lancaster County, there are more than 100 family-owned turkey farms with many selling fresh birds direct or through farmers markets. Many supermarkets offer shoppers a free frozen turkey during the holiday season, but in all probability that turkey comes from a large commercial farm in Ohio, North Carolina, or elsewhere.
Dr. Greg Martin, poultry educator at Penn State Extension in Lancaster, says that in 2016 more than seven million turkeys were raised and sold just in Pennsylvania, and the number will be at least that this year.
Housewives and chefs have different opinions about whether a fresh or frozen turkey tastes better, and the farmers who raise them also can’t agree. Many say the taste is the same, but at least one local turkey farmer who has been around for decades feels strongly that fresh is better.
“It’s like the Wendy’s TV ad about fresh hamburger tasting better than frozen,” he said, asking to not be identified. “It’s the same with turkey. Fresh turkeys just taste better.”
So, fresh or frozen, if locally-raised is important, there are a number of options for farm-grown turkeys:
Lititz
The Sensenig family, with a huge turkey farm on Reifsnyder Road and a popular poultry store on Furnace Hills Pike and stores at Root’s (Manheim) and West Shore (Lemoyne) farmers markets, has been in the business for years and is a local favorite for fresh turkeys during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
Meadow Run Farm on Rettew Mill Road, very close to the Warwick Township-Ephrata Township boarder, is a source for pasture-raised turkeys. Marcus Horst raises several hundred turkeys for the holiday season. He dresses and freezes the turkeys before sale. Meadow Run also sells farm-raised beef, poultry, pork and lamb and from a small retail store next to their 1788 farmhouse.
Ephrata
Residents looking for a fresh local turkey are close to Weaver’s on West Farmersville Road in Leola or Meadow Run Farm, or one of the poultry stands at area farmers markets.
Anna Harnish raised a small rafter of turkeys at Broody Hen Farm for several years, but is no longer in business.
Glenwood Turkeys on Glenwood Drive in Ephrata is run by a second-generation turkey farmer, but does not sell dressed birds. The farm raises thousands of live turkeys for distributors who sell to the live poultry markets. A few individuals who actually want to purchase a live turkey and do their own dressing can do so at Glenwood.
Elizabethtown
Glenn and Nancy Wise at Shady Acres Turkey Farm and Farm Store on Elizabethtown Road have been raising turkeys for 15 years. Son Mervin is now responsible for the operation.
Shady Acres pasture graze their turkeys. Nancy says she and her husband have always felt that turkeys raised outdoors taste better.
Several hundred turkeys are sold for Thanksgiving at Shady Acres, and the last week is pretty hectic as birds are dressed and prepared for customers. It’s so busy, says Mrs. Wise, “We actually enjoy Thanksgiving at a friend’s home.”
Fresh locally-raised turkeys range from 10 to 30 pounds. Most fresh turkeys are female hens while the larger male toms &tstr; that everyone says tastes the same &tstr; are sold to restaurants that have larger ovens to accommodate the size. However, be aware if you purchase a turkey close to the 30 pound size, it is most likely a tom.
Two of the most well-known family farms in the Country are Esbenshade’s in Ronks and Weaver’s Turkey Farm in Leola. Both farms have been operating for generations and sell directly to the public during the holiday season, as well as to stores through a distributor.
Bob Esbenshade says he can have more than 8,000 birds in different stages of growth on the farm at any time during the year. To be sure the birds are of proper sized for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the poults are purchased at different times in late summer to begin their growth cycle. Between 15,000 and 20,000 turkeys are sold each season.
Ask Bob about the history of Esbenshade’s and he has stories. He’ll tell you he started helping his father as a young boy and remembers, as a pre-teen, driving the family Model T Ford and bringing feed to the turkeys, which were then pasture-raised, all before World War II.
At Weaver’s, a business started by current owner Sherwin’s great-grandfather in 1960, the corn and soy-fed turkeys are hormone-free, as are many Lancaster County family farm raised birds.
Sherwin is a third generation turkey farmer and sells Hybrid brand turkeys, as well as the Nicholas brand, which was the first white-feathered turkey, marketed in 1957 by poultry breeder George Nicholas.
Common turkey breeds raised and sold in the area are Heritage, Broad Breasted, Nicholas and Hybrid, and almost all the turkeys sold today are white in color. For centuries, bronze turkeys, a cross between a European domestic turkey and a wild North American bird, were the breed of choice, and it is the turkey color depicted in most Thanksgiving artwork.
Bronze turkeys were popular until the mid-20th Century when the white feathered Nicholas was first bred. Farmers say they have very little request for dark feathered birds.
Native to the Americas, the wild turkey was a major part of the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest celebration with the Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts way back in 1621. Journals show that William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, sent men out “fowling” for wild turkeys for the celebration. The domesticated turkey has been a mainstay of Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday family meals ever since. Even today, Pennsylvania hunters head to the woods in search of the Eastern Wild Turkey during the fall season.
One of the biggest turkey farms regionally is Cooper Farm in Ohio, where 15 million turkeys are raised each year, many for the Bob Evans Corporation.
The popular Butterball brand (and company) in Mt. Olive, N.C., is believed to be the largest turkey operation in the country, raising millions of poults to maturity and selling fresh and frozen whole turkeys nationwide. Their website is an encyclopedia of all things turkey, including cooking tips and menus.
Farmers and retailers alike, as well as countless printed articles about Thanksgiving cooking and holiday meal websites, all stress the importance of preparing the bird correctly. Today, young fresh turkeys are literally that, being grown in a short 16 to 20 weeks. If a young fresh turkey is cooked too long, using instructions from an older cookbook, you’ll get a “tough and dry” dinner. Everyone recommends cooking by temperature using a good cooking thermometer. Most cooking instructions today say a turkey, with an internal temperature of 165 degrees and thighs at 180 degrees, is done. If using a frozen turkey, it is critical that the bird be fully thawed out before being prepared for the oven.
And if you have purchased a fresh turkey and find some ice in the cavity, don’t panic and think you purchased a frozen bird by mistake. Local farmers need to cool the turkey’s body temperature immediately after dressing. They do so with ice and water. At times, some of the ice remains and does not melt when the turkey is wrapped and transferred to a cooler until picked up by customers.
Online, telephone help, and in-depth cooking instructions in newspapers and magazines for both the novice and experienced cook and chef are available to be sure you prepare the most flavorful turkey for your family gathering. Although the good old days when your grandmother put the turkey into the oven the night before Thanksgiving and cooked it at a low temperature overnight are long gone, those of us who remember it still miss waking up to that wonderful smell on Thanksgiving Day.
Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

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