When most people consider their Thanksgiving meal, they consider being surrounded by family and how good the turkey will taste, and how many times they will come back for more. To achieve that tantalizing traditional taste, at Stonewood Farm what their turkeys eat and how they are raised is paramount. In mid-October, 34,000 white breasted turkeys are given feed formulated of corn and soybeans specifically for Stonewood Farm. That’s 34,000 pounds of feed a day, amounting to 1,500 tons of feed a year.

The operation in Orwell, VT, is co-owned by second generation farmer Peter Stone and his wife, Siegrid Mertens. Their son Nathan, 19, the third generation, works at the farm. Their other children, Patrick, 16, and Catherine, 12, help out too.

They have two full-time employees. During processing, which begins in October and lasts until December, they hire 30 other employees. This year they started with 37,000 turkeys and started processing early since they became low on product.

As the farm website states, they are proud to raise the turkeys following humane care and handling guidelines. They are filed with the state and routinely inspected.

They buy the poults when they are one day old and raise them 14 to 17 weeks in seven of their 50-by-240-foot metal-roofed, wood frame turkey barns. The barns have thick curtains that are pulled down and warmed with propane heaters, with the temperature reaching up to 100º until the poults get their feathers. When they are five weeks old, and feathered, the curtains are raised to allow sunshine and fresh Vermont air to flow through.

They spend their days uncaged with their flock eating in peace and contentment. If it gets rainy, cold or windy, the curtains can be pulled down. They are slow growing, allowing for improved quality of meat and taste that is self-basting. They are fed no hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts.

Documented studies have proven that raising animals in stress-free environments allows the animals to grow bigger, healthier and enhances the taste. Humane handling during slaughtering and processing reduces bruising of the meat. The calm atmosphere permeates the farm.

The Stones stagger production by buying some turkeys in May, June and July. They never leave the farm until they are ready to leave as product. Stone said, “We buy them, and grow them, until they are ready to be cooked. They don’t have to go on a truck to a processing plant. We take them in a little wagon to the processing plant,” six to 24 at a time in a wagon at the back of a tractor.

Talking turkeys all the time

The crew during peak season at Stonewood Farm in Orwell, VT. Photo courtesy of Stonewood Farm

Stone was introduced to farming when his parents, Paul and Frances Stone, bought the farm in 1976 when he was in eighth grade. At the time it was a dairy farm. In 1987, his parents started raising  turkeys, mentored by a farmer in Panton, VT, the town where they had been taking the turkeys to be processed. “My father didn’t want to milk cows the rest of his life,” said Stone.

They started with 300 turkeys in 1987. By 1989, they were raising 4,000. When they found raising turkeys to be more profitable than milking cows, they sold the milking cows in 1989 and bought their own slaughterhouse, containing their processing costs. Paul and Frances still live on the farm.

Stone helped out on the farm as a kid, and after high school, left to do carpentry for 10 years. During the years he worked as a carpenter, he returned to help with slaughtering turkeys and processing. In 1996, he returned full-time. He lives on the farm with his own family.

In 2009, he and Siegrid bought the business part of the farm. “We own the farm but not the real estate,” he said. The development rights of the farm’s 800 acres have been sold to Vermont Land Trust.

He brought home his carpentry skills to use in helping build and maintain the turkey barns.

They started making turkey sausage when they had extra turkeys and now offer four types: hot or sweet Italian sausage, Cajun-style sausage and mild sausage. They offer frozen ground turkey meat and ground turkey breast year-round.

They don’t sell anything online, but people can email or call the farm to order turkeys or products to be picked up on-site. About 120 people order and come by the farm to pick up their seasonal whole turkeys. The majority of their turkeys are delivered by Black River Produce, a Springfield, VT, company, to 10 to 12 area stores like Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Stone said, “We’re not quite big enough to need somebody full-time for trucking; it’s easier to have Black River do it. They are already going to all those stores.” They sell directly to four distributors that deliver their products to other stores.

That the turkeys are raised following humane care and handling guidelines is very important to their customers. Phil Brodeur, meat manager at Brattleboro Food Co-op, said, “We emphasize that animals have to be humanely raised and harvested. I have worked here for 15 years and Stonewood Farm was carried here long before me. They have met the highest quality standards, not to mention being delicious and nutritious. I would say because they are outside, where it’s cold, the turkeys put on more fat, and more fat adds to the flavor.”

For more information, access stonewoodfarm.com.

by Laura Rodley