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Downingtown's Howe Turkey Farm Provides Locavores with All-Natural Thanksgiving Birds

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FOR THE BIRDS: Julie and Nathan Howe with their Thanksgiving flock. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
To hear Nathan Howe tell it, the family farm simply fell into his lap. “It was me—or the farm went up for sale,” he says.

Five years ago, when his mother approached him, it was the “end of the line.” For Nathan, the timing was right.

And it’s all about timing at a farm that specializes in fresh turkeys—all of them processed, picked up and delivered just days before Thanksgiving Day, everything needs to be right on time. In keeping with the fresh theme, Howe even changed the name of the Downingtown facility, from Little Washington Farm to Howe Farm.

Starting in July, 1,000 day-old poults (young turkeys) arrive. Two more batches come the first and last weeks of August, for a total of 3,600 birds each season. From that point, the birds are raised until four days before Thanksgiving.

Different arrival dates make for birds of varying sizes—anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds. “We start getting calls by the end of September or the beginning of October,” says Nathan’s wife, Julie. “They tell us what size, and we tell them we’ll get as close to that as we can. But you never know until the turkey is dressed. The beauty is that they’re all fresh.”

Julie married into the bird business, growing up on a dairy farm in neighboring Glenmoore that’s long been sold. “This is not unusual for me,” she says. “I’m right where I want to be, but I never thought it would be a turkey farm.”

Back in 1988, Lamar and Mary Howe set about building a turkey business from 3,000 to 10,000 birds. But when Nathan’s father died in 1999, the family formed the Washington Farm corporation for nine years. By then, Nathan had moved off the farm. But he returned in 2007 to help his mother, buying the 10-acre farm a year later.

“In the last few years, I’ve learned more than in all the previous years,” he says. “This is definitely a growing experience, but I’ve learned to love it and be passionate about it. Our goal is to get it to 5,500 turkeys.”

At Howe Farm, there are two unimaginatively named turkey houses: the back house, which includes the starting room, and No. 8 (a number once painted on its siding). The former measures 50 by 120 feet; No. 8 covers 40 by 100 feet.

With five young children, Nathan still works full-time in construction. While he’s away for the day, Julie cares for the kids, homeschooling them. The turkeys, meanwhile, are mostly sold wholesale to businesses giving out free holiday birds to employees. Others go to places like Hershey’s Farm Market in Parkesburg. “As hard-working farmers, Nathan and Julie have a lot in common with us,” says Claire Hershey, the owner there. “There’s a lot of trust in our dealings.”

About 600 turkeys are sold at retail prices to individual families within a 30-mile radius. Many have a tradition of buying their birds from the Howes. “We’d like it to be more retail, because that’s where the money is,” admits Julie.

Thus far, tradition, repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising have been the farm’s best allies. “Our turkeys sell themselves,” Julie says. “Being small, we can wait until the week before Thanksgiving Day.”
 

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STANDING OUT IN A CROWD: Julie and Nathan Howe among the farm’s latest residents. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
The key is keeping the poults warm, hydrated and fed. They eat twice a day and are checked for water four or five times. Thunderstorms necessitate a vigilance. The noise causes the young birds to crowd each other. “They pile on,” Julie says. “We have to make sure that they’re not crushing and killing each other.”

The Howes’ oldest child, Emilie, checks water with her mother. All the children help wash feeders and waterers, and herd the flock when new poults arrive. “The kids love to be there when they’re delivered,” Julie says. “They love watching them grow like crazy.”

The first flock remains in the starter room until the next batch arrives, then the earlier group gets moved to the second turkey house. For herding, the kids carry poles with attached streamers. In general, though, once a bird or two lead the way, the rest follow.

Once the birds are out of the starter room, they eat from automatic feeders linked to the grain bin and lowered by pulleys. Automatic waterers are hooked to a spigot. “It’s more work when they’re little,” says Julie. “We have to keep the perfect temperature and constantly check their water.”

Howe turkeys aren’t organic, but they are all natural. The birds are given a probiotic on a regular basis to promote good health, and their diet is basically vegetarian. Organic classification is a heap of extra work. Then, once you have an organic bird, there’s more competition in an even smaller marketplace. “We’re staying the course,” says Nathan. “We’re middle of the road.”

Once Thanksgiving week comes, operations move to the on-farm processing plant, where there’s family help and Amish employees who are holdovers from Nathan’s father’s era—15-20 in all.

Once the birds are hung by their feet on a rotating, above-head rack, Nathan slits their throats and blood-lets them above a concrete channel and drain before removing their legs. They’re then dropped into a scalder set to 140-145 degrees. In 45 seconds, a plucker removes feathers from four birds, which are automatically shot out of a chamber door and cleaned up by “pinners,” who remove the tiny remaining feathers. After that, the turkeys move down a stainless steel channel to have neck skin removed.

The birds are hung a second time on an above-head hanger and conveyer system. Amish ladies clean out the birds’ insides, pulling out gizzards and giblets, which are saved in a bag for the clients. Then there’s a final vacuuming of the body cavity. At the final inspection table, the heads don’t survive the guillotine, then it’s on to ice-water tubs kept at 32 degrees for the proper cool down—about six hours before they’re bagged.

Growth at Howe Farm rests on plans to expand and diversify, utilizing the surrounding fields to plant produce in hopes of opening a farmers’ market. Nathan’s father once grew truckloads of tomatoes, and he also sold for Pioneer Seed in New Holland. There were once functional greenhouses on the farm, as well.

Nathan’s brothers ran the place with their mom after their dad’s death. By the time they’d moved off the farm, they’d downsized the turkey business Julie and Nathan are now rebuilding. “Nathan’s mind is geared toward the business,” Julie says. “He knows what to do. I’m always juggling. Once we’re in the fall, we’re getting 20-30 phone calls [for orders] a day.”

The soft economy has been a challenge. “Not everyone wants to pay to eat a fresh turkey,” says Nathan. “If they’re going to cut, that’s where they’ll cut.”

Still, companies are giving turkeys for Thanksgiving. “Fresh or frozen?” poses Nathan. “It’s a tough sell.”