When it comes to turkeys, there are really two distinct kinds, explains Brock Stein.
“I would also say that they can really have one of two personalities: They can be really nonchalant, or they can be kind of aggressive,” says Stein, the vice president of strategic development at Koch Farms. “I would say that groupthink would be the psychological term for them. They travel in packs, so when one gobbles, the whole place gobbles—that’s how I think of it!”
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Stein knows a lot about turkeys. He is now the fourth-generation of family members to work at Koch’s Turkey, a farm his great-grandfather started in 1939. Though he’s worked at the farm in varying capacities his whole life, Stein has assumed a full-time role since April, when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.
This being Thanksgiving week, we spoke with Stein about the family business, and we traveled to Koch’s Turkey farm to see where the beloved holiday staple comes from. There is, it turns out, a lot more that goes into turkey farming than you probably think.
How big is your farm, and how has it grown?
When my grandfather took over in 1953, they started with about 1,600 turkeys. Now, we process upward of 850,000 turkeys a year, and we’ve done as many as a million a year.
Raising turkeys is a family business. From left to right: Beth Koch Argall (3rd generation), Brock Stein (4th gen.), Pamela Koch Williams (3rd gen.), Lowell Koch (2nd gen.), Elizabeth Koch (2nd gen.), Barbara Koch (3rd gen.), & Brandon Koch (4th gen.)
Koch’s Turkey (aptly pronounced “cuck”, like “cluck”), was started by Emma & Roscoe Koch and has grown from just a handful of turkeys in 1939 to some 850,000 in 2014.
What’s one of the misconceptions people have about farming?
I’d say the number one confusion people have—whether it’s my friends from college or people from the community—is that they don’t know that there’s a lot of business in farming, especially on a larger scale. I think when people hear the word farming, then they think of guys with hay in their mouths wearing overalls! The reality, however, is that agribusiness is a very serious and competitive industry—there are just so many moving pieces you always have to be on top of.
Deep in the heart of rural Pennsylvania, surrounded by state recreation land and rolling hills of corn rows and tree farms, turkeys grow year round on the farm in Tamaqua, population 7,100, in Pennsylvania’s Lewistown Valley.
In a small family run business, moms run the test kitchen. Turkey is served daily year round, here by Pamela Koch Williams.
How is business over the course of the year?
In the last 10 years, I would say it’s consistent demand with a huge spike at Thanksgiving. We probably derive about a quarter of our sales from Thanksgiving. Christmas and Easter are also popular times, but there’s more growth recently around Easter than Christmas.
How have you seen Americans’ consumption of turkey change?
I would say overall the turkey industry has higher demands than I had ever noticed before. It’s nothing drastic yet, but certainly it’s growing. It used to be a thanksgiving food, but now it’s popular all year round.
A lot of chefs and restaurants are subbing turkey for other meats because it’s naturally 98% fat free, and it’s the healthiest, leanest meat. In terms of quality, consumers are definitely looking for more certifications. We’re certified humane, and we have a certified organic line, which is non-GMO verified. I’d also say that non-GMO is our biggest priority for 2015. That seems to be the biggest thing we hear from our customers—are we non-GMO?
Some 6,000 Bronze turkeys in each house strut their stuff in more spacious accommodations, twice the free ranging area as compared to the industry standard. Koch’s is the number one producers of “Bronzers” in the U.S., a leaner, meatier bird.
How long does it take for a turkey to mature?
We buy the baby turkeys from different hatcheries, depending on the product line. We’re responsible for them from the time we get them until the time they get to the grocery store.
It takes about three to five months for them to mature, depending on the size you’re looking for. When I say we process 850,000 turkeys, I mean that we own two farms independently, and they’re separate from each other. We then use about 25 other grow-out farms that are run by independent farmers who send their turkeys to us. We have people in the field who make sure those farms are complying with our regulations and with our internal quality assurance guidelines. All those turkeys together, the ones that leave our processing facility, total 850,000.
What’s the biggest turkey you’ve ever seen?
They can grow up to 50 pounds. I think that the biggest turkey we’ve ever had here was 55 pounds. I believe that one went to a restaurant in New York. The average size of a whole turkey is somewhere around 18 pounds, but 10 to 24 pounds is our most popular size range.
Once housed where offices now stand, the farm store was relocated to more austere seasonal digs in the front yard to handle the massive influx of locals who pick up really fresh turkeys for their holiday meals.