Not only do the customers that buy their fresh turkeys from Esbenshade Turkey Farm celebrate the traditional Thanksgiving, but generations of repeat customers have made the trip of picking up their turkeys at the farm a tradition.

“It’s an experience,” said Barbara (Esbenshade) Zerbe, fifth generation turkey farmer. “People come from all over the country – Ohio, New York, Indiana, from down south, Virginia. They come and take pictures, bring their kids. It’s a tradition.”

Though the farm is physically located in Ronks, PA, Zerbe’s father liked the nearby name of the town of Paradise and got a post office box there so their mailing address could read “Paradise.” Customers drive through Paradise to get to the farm.

Established in 1858, the Esbenshade Turkey Farm in Lancaster County is the oldest turkey farm in America. Isaac Esbenshade was the first generation. The second generation was Abram Esbenshade; the third, Ellis Esbenshade; then Barbara’s father, Robert Esbenshade (better known as Bob).

“My father was very instrumental in running the farm,” she said. “He was a very generous man, very kind. He loved all his turkey customers.” The farm employs 50 people, including 15 to 20 Amish folks.

A family tradition for a traditional meal

The Esbenshade family, with Bob and Gladys in the middle, at Esbenshade Turkey Farm in Ronks, PA. Photo courtesy of Barbara (Esbenshade) Zerbe

The turkeys are cage-free, raised without hormones and fed a vegetarian diet of a mix of corn and soy that they purchase.

This Thanksgiving they are raising and processing 6,500 Broad Breasted White Nicholas turkeys. The Nicholas breed is named after George Nicholas, who established it in the 1950s to be a high-meat yield turkey produced at a lowest cost.

The turkeys, 10 to 30 lbs. on average, are shrink-wrapped and come in a cardboard box ready for transport. Customers pick up their turkeys at the farm or from two other satellite locations.

“There are customers that buy several hundred, and businesses that buy a thousand or more. They are mostly repeat customers, generations coming back,” said Zerbe. Frozen turkeys can be bought year-round.

Their turkey is also featured on the menu at John Wright Store and Restaurant in Wrightsville, PA, where turkey burgers and turkey shepherd’s pie are served.

The farm’s advertising has been and still is mainly by word of mouth. However, now “lots of people are finding us on the internet,” said Zerbe.

What does she like best about working at the farm? “It’s been my home my whole life. My dad ran it until he passed away in 2020. My brother Jim was going to run it, but he passed away in 2019.” Zerbe took up the reins. “I’m thankful that we’re keeping the business.”

Her husband, David Zerbe, was not a farmer. He was a business manager – but he took up farming right alongside her.

Barbara’s daughter Erin (Zerbe) Landis, her husband Kevin Landis and her grandchildren Ashtyn, Dayton and Jordyn also work at the farm, the sixth and seventh generations on the 60-acre farm. Her mother, Gladys Esbenshade, 94, still resides at the farm.

The turkeys reside in a turkey house that is a big as a football field. They recently made improvements, making two 200-foot-plus feeding areas for the birds with automated water and feeding trays and upgraded the heating system for the poults.

They have plans for enlarging the area where the turkeys are processed and dressed. The Amish people that have worked in the processing center have worked for Esbenshade Turkey Farm for generations.

After Thanksgiving, customers can begin ordering their Christmas turkeys.

For more information, find Esbenshade Turkey Farm on Facebook.

by Laura Rodley