By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
After four generations in the turkey business, the Winter family from Dalemead, Alberta has learned a thing or two about everyone’s favourite holiday fowl. And a thing or two about raising the famously fragile gobblers to see them off successfully to the seasonal market. It is all the more remarkable in this case because the Winter family turkeys are certified both free range and organic. That means the turkeys have to spend time outside walking around and foraging, and the Winter family can’t use any anti-biotics in their 25,000 plus bird operation.
Darrel Winter, current owner of Winter’s Turkeys, says the secret to preventing illness is keeping the birds clean and comfortable.
“Because they are often outside and are anti-biotic free we have no back-up plan for disease,” says Winter. “So what we wind up doing here is we bed. Their barn is as clean as we can keep it so we put in fresh straw for bedding every two days for their comfort. The birds really appreciate clean straw. It is also a major part of our health plan. If they are clean, and dry and happy they are a lot more likely to stay healthy. That has worked very well for us in our operation.”
Winter also attributes his Dad’s decision in 1958 to switch to whole feed, something his family continues to do to this day, as being a significant factor in keeping the birds healthy.
“I think that is a huge reason for the success of this operation,” says Winter. “Those birds have metabolized their own grain. They have to do it all, and it takes a little energy on their part to do that. But that is the natural way that bird would have to do it if it wasn’t domesticated livestock. Every part of their system has to be tuned to perfection to handle the whole grain.”
Of course, there is also more work which comes from feeding whole grain.
“We also have to feed them the appropriate amount of gravel. We go through three tandem loads of gravel a year here. A pail of gravel is 75 pounds. And we feed that by hand so you can imagine how much that job is in and of itself for someone. That’s a lot of work,” confirms Winter.
Being a small turkey operation with specialty certifications, Winter’s Turkeys has had to get creative with its marketing. Again Darrel Winter explains.
“I think the turkey business is excellent these days. But we also have the challenge of the quality we are trying to raise both in the ones we have processed and for our whole turkeys. It costs money to make a nice product, and we have to charge for it. That means our turkeys have to be good quality. If we are going to put in the effort to raise a nice bird then we have to be paid for it. So we have to look at the specialty market. We have some very good grocery clients in Calgary, and then we supply the specialty butcher shops and health food stores. We also do some frozen sales.”
Besides the free range label attached to all its turkeys, Winter’s Turkeys has also delved heavily into the organic turkey market. And they have brought in some very special turkey genetics into their flock to highlight that organic commitment.
“In 2000 we started in the organic side of things,” says Winter with obvious pride in his voice. “So we have certified organic birds. So we have to keep those birds segregated, and we have a very nice organic branch in our business. About six years ago we went back to the old bronze-coloured (Orlopp Broad Breasted) birds from the 1930s and 1940s that still have the wild turkey genetics, and that has been a real joy for us here. They are a beautiful bird. They don’t perform as well on the growth part, but they are so nice and flavourful. They are also quite wonderful to be around. They are back-feathered and they have more feathers than other domesticated varieties. They are a hardier bird.”
Winter says part of the challenge he has in the turkey business is market expectations which have evolved over the past several decades. People want smaller birds now, for example, in the 10-12 pound range. Whereas turkeys are naturally a much bigger bird at full maturity. Winter’s males can reach as much as 40-50 pounds and his females as much as 24-28 pounds. Because he puts a lot more individual expense into each one of his birds, Winter also has to charge more per kilo than other commercial varieties on grocery shelves. He says it’s a challenge each year to figure out how to price his birds in that “Goldilocks” zone where he is charging high enough to stay profitable and low enough to not scare customers away when they look at the price tag.
“The bird proves its worth at the table,” says Winter. “We have been in business 55 years and we are still in business. So we have to think what we have done in terms of price is fair. It’s not cheap, but it’s fair.”
Winter’s Turkeys brings in two different flocks a year, one in June and one in August, so the birds have the necessary 18-20 weeks to mature before the big run on the market for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Our farm is clear of turkeys in December. The next market is Easter, and we don’t have facilities here to raise an Easter flock because our Christmas birds are still in the barn. We’d also be raising turkeys in possibly -30 C, and that doesn’t work with our schedule. We have plenty of frozen turkeys if people want one for Easter. Our customers tell us our frozen turkeys compete very well (in quality) with other fresh ones.”
Winter says word of mouth has always been his farm’s primary means of expanding its market share, but there’s really no secret to his family’s four generations of success in business.
“We love our birds. And we always know that each bird is going to a customer with a family. The way we think about it is it has got to be as nice as it can be. That goes back to the early days in our turkey operation when we knew each customer by name. So we have kept that thought as a key part of our business.”