By MAX GARLAND
SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — Although West Virginia is projected to raise 3.5 million turkeys for all of 2017, some small farmers are unsure they’ll be adding more to that figure in the years ahead.
“Given the difficulties, it remains a small part of our business,” Shady Grove Farm manager John Snyder said of raising turkeys, which contribute to about 15 percent of the farm’s sales.
Shady Grove, a Summersville farm specializing in chicken and duck egg production, has raised a handful of White Holland turkeys for the past three Thanksgiving holidays. Their rarity — the Livestock Conservancy pens them as “one of the rarest and most difficult to authenticate varieties” of turkey — contributes to a higher price tag than the more common broad-breasted white turkeys.
There are several hurdles to the growth of small-farm turkey production in West Virginia, according to Snyder. One of the biggest challenges for Shady Grove has been keeping the turkeys safe from an illness with no known prescription drug available to treat it: blackhead disease.
“West Virginia is a hotspot for blackhead [disease], especially in Nicholas County,” Snyder said. “It is almost 100 percent fatal.”
Shady Grove has managed to get by with Caroline Snyder, who runs the farm with John, her husband, using natural treatments for the disease which have been successful.
But there is still concern from the Snyders regarding federal regulations requiring meat to go through a state-inspected, USDA-approved slaughterhouse in order to be shipped across state lines.
John Snyder said the closest slaughterhouse to Shady Grove that fits the bill is in Virginia, not worth the logistical costs. Unless a slaughterhouse much closer to the farm receives approval, their meat market will remain limited to West Virginia, he said.
“You can ship eggs over the country, but you can’t ship the poultry meat outside the state,” he said. “People would buy them. Our birds could sell online for $15 or $17 a pound.”
Local farms like Shady Grove remain a small slice of West Virginia turkey production. Beef and poultry giant Cargill and the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative are the main commercial turkey producers in the state, according to Department of Agriculture spokesman Crescent Gallagher.
Aviagen Turkeys, a poultry breeding company with operations in Lewisburg, is also a large contributor to West Virginia turkey production. But Gallagher noted that the company makes breeder flocks, which are hatched and then sent to a different facility, meaning those flocks wouldn’t count toward the total if they are sent out of state to grow.
Turkey production in West Virginia has been fairly steady in the past several years, although production this year is expected to drop 5 percent from 2016’s 3.7 million turkeys produced, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The state’s turkey production has been steadier in recent years than it has been nationwide. For the entire U.S., turkey production has dropped from more than 270 million in 2008 to the estimated 245 million this year, according to the release.
Like Shady Grove, Sarver Heritage Farm recently began raising turkeys for Thanksgiving but quickly realized it has likely hit its production ceiling. The Organ Cave-area farm in Greenbrier County holds a small flock of free-ranging turkeys fed with organic grain to sell over the holidays every year.
Turkeys were originally “yard ornaments” for Sarver Heritage Farm until 2013, said farm co-owner Jewell Doering, but keeping them around proved expensive.
“They needed to pay for themselves,” she said.
On Monday, the farm processed 12 fresh turkeys to sell for Thanksgiving to go along with the 12 frozen turkeys for sale. The farm also makes two dozen turkeys for Christmas, Doering said.
The handful of turkeys Sarver Heritage raises each year never fail to attract buyers. The waiting list for next year’s Thanksgiving turkeys will open Friday, as it has in previous years, Doering said.
But ramping up the turkey supply to meet demand isn’t feasible, Doering said. The farm’s top priority remains its grass-fed beef, and raising turkeys is expensive while processing them is time consuming, she said. At this stage, turkey production is more of a hobby for Doering than a vital cog in the business.
“If we had time to market [the turkeys] to Charleston or Washington, D.C., then maybe that would be possible,” she said of raising a larger flock.
Not all small farms have put a cap on their turkey production, however. Rainy Day Farms in Putnam County raised about 100 turkeys for this year’s Thanksgiving. That’s 10 times the amount it raised in 2015, its first year raising turkeys, said co-owner Beth Criner.
The farm aims to keep growing its turkey operations in the years ahead, despite an incident this year when a dog found its way in the farm and killed several of the turkeys.
“It’s something you have to deal with and be aware that it could happen,” she said of the incident. “We’ll continue [raising turkeys]. We still raised more than we did last year.”
Although turkeys can be a handful to raise, Doering said their wits and hardiness are entertaining to experience firsthand.
“They are a lot more intelligent than the old wives’ tales would have you believe,” she said. “And they’re fine in cold weather. I’ve heard some of them that can stand and survive weather 16 [degrees] below zero.”
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