By Martin Ross
Kauffman Turkey Farms at Waterman has supplied fresh oven-ready turkeys for Northern Illinois tables for more than 75 years. Founding farmer Howard Kauffman left his indelible mark on the still-thriving operation: The “HoKa turkey” is a regional fixture.
Some things have changed under son Robert’s watch. Advanced breeding has produced a more robust bird, and consumers demand ever more from their turkey.
Some things remain the same. Even at a whopping 80,000 birds, the Kauffmans run one of the country’s last independent family turkey farms with its own federally inspected dressing plant. While his turkey is fresh and local, Robert Kauffman resists trendy catchphrases such as “organic” or “free range.”
And Kauffman remains steadfast in one key commitment: Safety first.
The Importance of Food Safety
The DeKalb County farmer raises birds both on the range and, during the winter, in what he refers to as the “house” – an environmentally regulated indoor facility. Responsible care is a crucial factor in consumer safety, welfare of the turkey flock and the Kauffmans’ bottom line.
“Every year, the turkey we’re raising is slightly different,” Robert Kauffman says. “[But] the way we keep that bird healthy hasn’t changed. You start off with a very clean environment – we do a complete cleanout and disinfection after a flock has left. We try to keep the entire building, the entire environment, the water lines as clean as possible and get that bird off to an excellent start. It’s not really going to have a developed immune system for at least five weeks. We have to keep it healthy.”
Consumer safety is a watchword throughout the turkey industry. Central Illinois’ annual Tremont Turkey Festival is a gobbler gobbler’s dream (attendance reached record levels last June, with workers at one point serving 1,000 turkey sandwiches per hour). According to 2011 festival co-chairman Jim Moore, the Tazewell County event also has become a model for public safety, from the compressed-air injection of the marinade that gives sandwiches their smoky flavor to the gas grilling that has supplanted charcoal cooking.
Tremont’s 46-year-old celebration is one of the largest U.S. festivals still allowed to prepare its own food. Birds are processed and frozen out-of-state, thawed carefully, injected with the marinade and stored at a prescribed temperature prior to grilling. Public health officials from throughout the country visit the small-town gala “to show other festivals how to do this stuff,” Moore says.
The Kauffmans’ own health and safety program includes early vaccination for routine turkey diseases. Kauffman is sensitive to the public debate over antibiotic use in mature poultry. He uses veterinary drugs only when unexpected threats put consumers at risk or may cause animal suffering.
He questions the concept of “antibiotic-free” meat, citing federal standards that assure birds are clean and clear by the time they reach market. “The majority of our turkeys do not receive any antibiotics once they are on the farm at one day of age,” he explains. “However, we do treat flocks that get sick. We feel that’s the right thing to do.”
Kauffman takes a number of precautions to prevent disease. In order to maintain a secure environment, he discourages visitors from entering the turkey house. Visiting farmers or industry colleagues wear disposable “boots” and sometimes protective coveralls to prevent disease transmission between flocks.
The Care and Wellness of Turkeys
If modern birds are more highly protected, they’re also meatier. Breeders have increased breast mass to produce a table bird with more white meat, which has fewer calories, less fat and cholesterol, and more protein. While satisfying consumer demand, that also has led to misconceptions about turkey welfare.
Kauffman stresses that while his birds may not be “free range” per se, his birds do remain mobile. “They walk to the feeder; they walk to their water,” he says. If they were to collapse under their weight, he says, as their caretaker he would have done something drastically wrong.
Kauffman sees range-only production as a real challenge. Turkeys on open range are potentially exposed to pigeons, migratory and predatory birds, coyotes, skunks and disease-spreading organisms. The range is much more stressful on the turkeys than the house, which offers heat and shelter during the winter months and shade and air circulation on sweltering summer days, he explains.
“People driving by our farm can see for themselves how we keep over 20,000 turkeys on open range,” Kauffman says. “However, our later flocks are not grown outdoors as they will be too small to face the harsh year-end weather. They do receive extra room and, of course, our expert care.”
After all, as with any livestock or poultry operation, the responsibility of animal care is at the forefront of this farm. That commitment to safe, healthy and great-tasting turkeys has kept families enjoying the holiday tradition of a HoKa turkey dinner since 1933 – and for generations to come.
Where to Buy
HoKa turkeys are available at the Kauffman farm in Waterman, and in meat markets, independent grocery stores and some specialty chains throughout Northern Illinois. For farm hours and a list of stores selling the turkeys, call (815) 264-3470 or visit www.hokaturkeys.com.
An estimated 88 percent of Americans surveyed still serve turkey for Thanksgiving. For more turkey trivia, click here.