STANFIELD, NC – Windell Talley grew up in the area east of Charlotte, NC that in the early part of the 20th century was cotton country. With the boll weevil wiping out most cotton production in Stanly County by the time he came home in the 1960’s after graduating from NC State, Talley had to choose a different path.
Talley went to work for Bruce Simpson, who had built his own integrated poultry company in neighboring Union County, the Simpson Milling Company.
“He was one of the best,” Talley said. The plant Simpson started was sold to Holly Farms, and is today the Tyson plant outside of Monroe.
After about a year, Talley and his wife Judy branched out on their own, moving back to Stanly County and starting a turkey operation.
“Fifty years ago the turkey industry was more of a holiday bird industry, not a meat industry,” Talley recalled. “We’d ship loads of birds up to New York, where they’d be dressed.”
At first, Talley kept toms in brooder houses for seven weeks, then moved them out to range. At 24 weeks, they’d be 24 pounds. Today, Talley can raise a 40-pound bird in 19 weeks.
In the early 1970s, Talley moved from ranging turkeys to raising them in grow-out sheds with an accessible side lot for ranging. Today the side lots are gone.
At first, Talley was a contract grower for Armour & Company. By the early 1970’s, however, he decided to get into the owned turkey business. That meant having to market turkeys. For many years, he sold to the Rocco plant (now Cargill) in Harrisonburg, VA.
Several times, though, Talley had no market for turkeys. Fortunately, by then he had expanded into crop production, so he was always able to generate enough income to keep the farm going.
Today, Talley’s sons Nelson, Paul and David all work on the farm. Nelson is in charge of meat birds, Paul in charge of crops, and David in charge of breeder turkeys and the farm’s cattle herd. The operation includes several breeder farms, which supplies eggs to Prestage Farms’s hatchery.
In recent years, Talley Farms has expanded its meat production by using contract growers. They have also switched almost all of their production to all-natural, non-antibiotic meat. It’s processed at a plant in Pennsylvania and is sold to markets like Whole Foods.
Like his turkey operation, Talley’s grain operation has grown significantly, in part because he has had to increase his feed production. He started with two 6,000-bushel storage bins. Today he can store a million bushels of grain.
The storage is used to supply the pellet feed mill he built in the early 1990’s. The mill produces 3,000 tons of feed per week. “I started out making feed at night in a two-ton mixer,” Talley said, recalling his early days as an integrator.
Today, the mill uses grain grown on the farm (which does have irrigation for much of its land) as well as grown by other neighboring farms. “We’ve got some really good growers,” Talley said. “We’ve also got the best employees here on the farm and in the office.”
A few years ago, Talley, who served two terms on North Carolina’s Board of Agriculture, also bought farmland in Robeson County, which is used to grow grain.
One thing Talley has noticed about crop farming since he came back from NC State is the improvement in soil quality. Cotton had drained the soil, but by spreading turkey litter and using no-till, the organic matter has increased and production has improved (also driven, he noted, by improvements in genetics).
Today, Talley’s life is much different than it was a half-century ago. He fields calls from commodity brokers in multiple states, who inquire whether Talley needs grain for his mill.
But the spirit of the man who built what is North Carolina’s second-oldest turkey company is much the same.
“I get up in the morning, have breakfast, and get going,” he said.