Turkeys' final days on the Hi-Line


EAST END COLONY - As people across the Hi-Line got ready to celebrate Thanksgiving earlier this week, local Hutterite colonies were also hard at work preparing for a regional feast. And while many families were undoubtedly scrambling to receive their holiday visitors, the quintessential Thanksgiving guests - the turkeys - arrived months ago.

They came by the dozens in late July. The birds, just 2 or 3 days old, flew in from Minnesota, migrating by mail and arriving at the Havre post office, said Peter Wipf, 57, who raises the turkeys at Hilldale Colony.

About 430 turkeys went to Hilldale this year, while East End Colony, the other area colony that raises turkeys, took about 600. Other colonies in the state with more territory to cover raised more than that: one raised about 2,700 gobblers this year, Wipf said.

About 17 weeks after they arrived, the birds fanned out from the two colonies to tables across the region. Hilldale sells them as far south as Poplar, east to Wolf Point and Glasgow, and west to Kremlin and Gildford, Wipf said.

But first came the basics, like teaching the little gobblers to eat and drink.

"They're a pretty fussy animal to get started on," Wipf said. The turkeys are half blind at first, so he put colored glass marbles in their water troughs. That helps them see so they know to drink, he said. Similarly, a special glittering kind of raw oatmeal helps teach the birds to eat.

After a week, Wipf dimmed the lights in the turkey barn to prevent them from pecking each other to death.

As the summer days shrank, the white turkeys grew. About the time the first snow began to fall, the first of the birds were slaughtered at 13 weeks old - just before maturity. Most were kept three or four more weeks, until mid-November. Some weighed upward of 40 pounds live, nearly 35 pounds dressed.

Meanwhile, the orders piled up. Buyers give a weight limit for the bird they want, and usually pay about $1 per pound, Wipf said.

"No vaccines or nothing in these - no shots or whatever," Wipf said. "And that's what a lot of people like about them."

The harvest

Ron Waldner, 17, waded into an gobbling mass of white at East End Colony's turkey barn on Monday. Clad in gloves and a rubber apron, he lunged, grabbed a leg in each hand and carried the flapping, kicking bird upside down toward a horizontal metal pole that extends the length of the barn about 6 feet off the ground.

At even intervals along the pole are seven metal devices that hold the turkeys' feet. He slid the turkey's feet into the nearest one, and left it to hang upside down, headed back to the corner, grabbed another, and struggled back to the pole to make a pair. Meanwhile on the other side of the barn two more youths did the same until two symmetrical rows of seven turkeys each hung in the wash of light coming through the doorway of the barn. Some struggled, flapped and gobbled while others were calm.

The group of three went down the line - one stunned the turkey with an electric charge, the second snapped its neck with forestry shears, and the third sliced through the neck skin with a knife. The blood was still pouring when the group moved on to the next one, and on down the line, working cleanly and efficiently. The turkeys violently flapped the air into a mass of dust and white feathers.

"Well, they're fresh," said David Hofer, 68, the turkey boss, who watches the work and with a pencil marked a tally for each turkey on a wooden beam.

The younger men stood aside, watching and waiting. The jerking softened into a gentle repetition and finally to a spent sway, and the only sound in the barn was the creak of the metal hooks and the wind outside the open door.

With noses raw from the cold and speckles of blood on their faces - turkey blood mixed with their own, a result of scratches from the flailing animals - the men brushed aside the question of whether they like this kind of work.

"If you're old enough to lift one of them, you help," said Mart Waldner, 21.

"Life is life. If you work, what's the difference what you do?" said Joe Waldner, 25.

Grabbing a turkey in each hand, they carried the birds out the barn door into the pale light, loaded them onto a flatbed pickup outside the door and then receded back into the barn, past the empty hooks for a new batch.

Jake Waldner, 16, drove the old four-door Chevrolet about a quarter mile past the colony's long rows of plain buildings.

"I've been working at the pig barn for six years now," he said, but on a day like Monday everyone pitches in to help.

Waldner pulled up outside a building at the other end of the colony.

Two turkeys in tow, he approached a door, which was pushed open from the inside to make way for him. Inside was a large room of about 40 steam-shrouded figures bustling around tables and stainless steel basins. A heavy, moist cloud, dense with the smell of turkeys, enveloped the room and overpowered the senses. Light filtered in through small windows near the ceiling. Once all the turkeys were unloaded, the door closed and the room settled back to the steam-wrapped hum of machines and a dim, warm rhythm of work.

Freshly killed turkeys were plunged into bins of 140-degree water for a few minutes until their feathers loosened. From there they were dropped two or three at a time into an electric plucker, a large 4-foot-wide metal drum with a spinning bottom. Dozens of rubber fingers protruding from the inside of the drum tousled the feathers loose as the birds spun. The stiff, straw-like feathers shot out the top and the bottom and sat on the floor until they were periodically swept into great piles next to the door.

The birds emerged from the plucker clean and pink, looking for the first time like the golden bundles they would be when plucked from ovens four days later.

From the plucker, each bird was plopped on a wooden table, where a half dozen bonnet-wearing women each stood in front of a turkey, pinching the turkey's skin between a paring knife and thumb to remove any remaining bristles.

"We're plucking the feathers," said Sara Waldner. "We're pulling out what's left."

Each of the women then soaked her turkey in a metal basin of warm water.

"So they're not bloody," said Rosa Waldner, 31. "We all do our own."

From there the birds went to another table, where the birds were gutted and then cleaned with a vacuum pump. It takes about a minute per bird.

Another group of women did the final cleaning by hand, removing most of the fat.

Less than two hours after the slaughtering began, the door to the room was thrown open and the steam dissipated. The floor was swept clean, the basins were tipped over and hosed out, the machines were cleaned and carried away, all with a mechanical efficiency. And about 220 turkeys sat in two enormous tanks of cold water, where they would sit overnight. In the morning they were rinsed, enclosed in plastic wrap, and loaded into a refrigerated van headed for town.

For John Waldner, 43, the colony's farm boss, these scenes of work are worth more than the food they produce.

"That's what our culture is," said Waldner, still in his apron, as he drank a teacup filled with pineapple juice after the last of the turkeys had been cleaned. "We do everything together as much as we can."

At Hilldale Colony as well this scene was played out on Nov. 17 and again Monday.

Wipf said the colony couldn't function if its people didn't cooperate to get the job done.

"The working together keeps the colony together," said Wipf. "I mean, if you didn't do that you couldn't get along the way they do."

"It's a team. It's teamwork, is what it amounts to," he added.

No matter how important work is, for Samuel Waldner, 40, rest is welcome by the end of an afternoon of cleaning turkeys.

"Like right now being done is the best part," he said.


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