|The Kauffman family|
Unlike you, I've actually been to a turkey farm. Exactly 20 years ago, visiting the Ho-Ka Turkey Farm.
It was not, as you might guess, a stomach-churning experience. Just the opposite. I have a memory of the turkeys wandering about a vast, feed-speckled outdoor area. It was pleasant, or pleasant enough for turkeys anyway.
Ho-Ka is still in business—Robert is still there. I just missed him, when I phoned, but spoke to the third generation, Nicole.
Wherever you get your turkey, however you prepare it—we roast one, fry the other—hope you and yours have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Cowering together — about 1,000 hens in this particular shed, pecking at feeders, clouds of dust and dander puffing off their backs like smoke — members of the Thanksgiving 1997 graduating class at the Ho-Ka Turkey Farm, a rustic spread of 500 acres, are simply bigger birds.
"Turkeys are taller than 10 years ago," said Robert Kauffman, owner of Ho-Ka, located near Waterman in DeKalb County, 70 miles west of Chicago.
Consumers prefer huge turkeys, he said, and the turkey industry has been happy to oblige them. But the birds were getting so big that their legs were giving out; and a lame bird doesn't last long in the frenzy of the turkey pen.
The solution: sturdier turkey bone structure.
But contrary to popular opinion, no growth hormones are used to alter turkey size.
"It's never, ever been legal to feed hormones to turkeys," said Kauffman, 38, a second-generation turkey farmer with a degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The size of turkeys entirely depends on genetic selection."
Thanksgiving is, of course, the high season for turkey producers—about 15 percent of the 300 million pounds of turkey raised nationwide each year are eaten for Thanksgiving dinner. Only 9 percent of the nation won't eat turkey this Thursday, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Ho-Ka is named for Robert's father, Howard Kauffman, who started the farm in 1933. Ho-Ka is the largest turkey farm in Illinois, raising about 80,000 turkeys a year, from day-old chicks to full-grown birds weighing about 20 pounds at slaughter.
Still, Ho-Ka is dwarfed by the huge turkey factories in states such as Texas, Minnesota and North Carolina.
And unlike the giant turkey plants, Ho-Ka lets the turkeys roam outdoors, hunting grasshoppers, fighting with each other, and whiling away the 18 weeks of life they are permitted before they go under the knife.
Turning gobbling turkeys into plucked birds ready to be sold is a lengthy process that could take the edge off your holiday appetite.
First the birds are hung on metal racks and their throats are cut. After they bleed to death, the carcasses are scalded, the feathers removed. The windpipe and oil glands go. Then the viscera -- the heart, liver, gizzard and such -- are removed, the head and feet cut off, and the turkey is washed and packaged.
A man in his position might not be blamed for passing up turkey tomorrow. Certainly anyone who watched the birds having their throats slit might have a qualm or two. But Kauffman's business doesn't diminish his appetite.
"I always have turkey," he said, expressing a preference for white meat. "Thanksgiving. Christmas, Easter. . . ."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 26, 1997