Inside tour of a turkey farm this Thanksgiving

David and some of his turkeys. (Source: WECT)
David and some of his turkeys. (Source: WECT)
Updated: Nov. 22, 2018 at 6:31 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Before you take a bite of Thanksgiving turkey we’d like to give thanks to the farmers who make today possible.

WECT’s Casey Roman headed out to Wallace to meet Butterball turkey grower David Hollingsworth and the true stars of today: the turkeys.

The trip was full of surprises.

First, we learned that none of the North Carolina turkey houses supply roasting turkeys!

Instead, our houses are full of teenage Tom turkeys who have a destiny in sandwich meat and turkey bacon. Tom turkeys are a whopping 50 lbs – not oven or fryer friendly. Their female counterparts are much more appropriate for the Thanksgiving table.

According to Butterball, it all starts at one of our state’s 85 breeder farms.

Turkey's at David's turkey farm. (Source: WECT)
Turkey's at David's turkey farm. (Source: WECT)

After the hens lay their eggs, the eggs are collected and sent to a hatchery. After 28 days or so the baby turkeys start to peep out. Trained staff will sex the turkeys into groups of boys and girls. This is particularly challenging since they are so tiny!

After they’ve gotten a little older, the hens go to finishing farms in the Midwest while the Toms stay in-state at farms like David’s. He’ll be responsible for taking care of approximately 92,000 turkeys at any one time for approximately 18 weeks until they head to a processor.

Our second surprise met us at the gate: a car wash.

There are trespassing signs posted and reminders that the property is watched by surveillance cameras. While this may seem like they’re trying to “hide” something on the farm, David explained it’s really to protect the turkey’s and ultimately you, the consumer. If new bacteria and germs are introduced to the flocks it can kill the birds.

The car wash is the first line of defense.

Every car is hosed down and sanitized to wash off outside grime.

Before entering the buildings, all visitors must sign in (in case they need to trace a “host”) and suit up with a full-body suit from their feet to their hair.

David explained this was all part of his biosecurity system to make sure his birds stay healthy.

David typically wakes up at 5 a.m. and gets to the houses around 7:15 a.m. He checks the generators, the feed, the chloride system (yes, the turkey’s get clean, treated water) and air quality inside the houses. A lot of this is now done by computer. Turkeys, have gone high tech.

From his computer (and even at home) David can monitor the static pressure, humidity, temperature and several other air indicators inside the houses. Even during Hurricane Florence all systems were monitored to prevent changes indoors. While a hurricane ragged outside, the turkeys were comfortable inside.

Hanging on the wall over his computer is a proudly displayed “American Humane Certified” poster. In 2013, Butterball and it’s growers partnered with this third-party organizations to add another layer of care for the birds and the consumer.

American Humane audits all the farms at standards that are stricter than industry guidelines.

Above that, the processing plants are camera recorded to ensure that staff are handling the birds with care. A third-party company keeps an eye over the facilities and if they feel a bird was mishandled there’s an immediate phone call to Butterball and a training session scheduled.

Back at David’s Wallace farm he showed us the “infirmary” of his facility. Walking the houses up and down about five hours a day helps him quickly identify and sick birds. He can than adjust levels of antibiotics and fluids at this facility to keep all the birds healthy and from catching any germs.

A common criticism of poultry farms is that the animals are pumped with antibiotics and steroids. David shakes his head when you bring this topic up. He points out that much like raising our children, when one gets sick we give them medicine. The turkeys are no different. It keeps them feeling well and keeps the consumer from getting an unhealthy product.

Turkey's at David's turkey farm. (Source: WECT)
Turkey's at David's turkey farm. (Source: WECT)

As for steroids, David jokingly asserted that if people were given the option to eat and nap for 24 hours a day, they too would grow very big, very fast.

The man makes a point.

Our next surprise was seeing the birds. Unlike wild turkeys that are brown, growers are a puffy white with large, beautiful blue and red heads. They’re quite a sight!

So is their relationship with their farmer.

Upon David’s call the turkey’s sang out in response. They greeted him at the door and followed him in fascination as he moved up and down through one of his turkey houses inspecting the birds.

Turkeys are not necessarily friendly, domesticated animals but David took every change he could to put their heads and tell them how pretty they were. (They really are gorgeous!)

One turkey in particular got a big hug from his farmer for being extra beautiful!

Watching David in the turkey house you’d think he had been doing this is entire life. But that’s far from the case.

David grew up around farming but he went into the construction side of agriculture.

On September 28, 2011 he became extremely ill. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, only that it was an autoimmune disease that they didn’t know how to treat and didn’t know how to cure.

“It made me look at things and it made me realize...,” David’s voice faded off as he held back tears. “It just made me realize I need to go in more of a hurry than I thought for life. There’s things I wanted to do.”

Turkeys, oddly enough, was one of them.

Construction had kept him on the road. There were years of his daughter’s lives he felt he had missed. Owning and operating a farm would reconnect him to his family and his community.

Six years ago he and his wife started planning and getting the permits to build their farm in Wallace. It would take a capital investment of over $1 million.

Four years ago this week they stood inside their brand new turkey house and waited. The Butterball baby birds would be arriving soon.

David remembers seeing them fill up the houses and not sleeping much that first night.

He still doesn’t sleep much running the entire operation but David wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s either in you or it ain’t,” he said. “If it’s in you, you don’t mind the long days, you don’t mind what goes wrong that day. You set your signs and get it fixed and continue to take care of your animals ‘caue that what I do. That’s my job.”

Farming had become a mostly thankless job as American’s lose their connection with where there food comes from.

“Someone has dedicated a lot of time and effort into getting that meal on their table,” David said. “I wish the general public could see that. It’s nice to get a pat on the back every now and then.”

As you give thanks tonight for friends and family, take pause before you pick up your plate. A nod of gratitude is owed to the hardworking men and woman who make up our North Carolina farm families, and who make Thanksgiving and every dinner possible.

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