Turkey time is all the time for some Virginia farmers

turkeyTurkeys gobble up the limelight in the weeks before Thanksgiving dinner, but more than 300 Virginia farmers raise turkeys year-round.

“Virginia has a long and proud history of turkey production,” said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “We’ve always been a major turkey-producing state, even ranking fourth nationwide before turkey production expanded in other states. Consumers here can expect access to fresh, locally raised turkeys for the holidays.”

Jerry Atkins, owner of Monrovia Ridge Farm in Orange County, is one of Virginia’s turkey farmers. He has two houses in which he grows three flocks of hens for Cargill Turkey Production annually. Each time he starts a new flock, he gets 51,000 birds.

A flock stays in the house for 12 weeks and is transported to Harrisonburg for processing at approximately 16 to 17 pounds. After each flock leaves, Atkins has a four-week period to clean the houses and prepare for the next flock.

This conventional poultry farming employs a vertical integration system. Cargill provides Atkins with the turkeys and feed, as well as an allotment for his poultry houses’ gas and electricity costs. Atkins provides Cargill with the houses, the equipment and labor needed to care for the birds.

“I like being a part of the vertically integrated turkey business, because it is always a constant source of cash flow,” he said. “Unlike other sectors of the agriculture industry that rely on the weather, we don’t have to.”

Each of his turkey houses is equipped with a heating, cooling and ventilation system, along with feed and water lines. Birds have access to fresh feed and water at all times and the temperature is regulated to ensure their comfort. The houses not only keep the turkeys in a comfortable environment, but also protect them from predators and possible exposure to wild birds that could be carrying diseases.

“My turkeys live in the absolute best environment a turkey could possibly have,” Atkins said. “They stay in a climate-controlled setting, are protected from the elements and they get to eat the best feed money can buy.”

Most Virginia turkey farms are located in the Shenandoah Valley, though there are poultry operations on the Eastern Shore and in the Piedmont region. Virginia ranks sixth among turkey-producing states and, along with five other states, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the turkeys produced in the U.S.

The Virginia poultry industry, which includes chicken and egg production, contributes more than $13 billion to Virginia’s economy and directly supports nearly 52,000 jobs in the state.


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