Although hubby comes from a long line of farmers (at least 5 generations) I never thought he would become one! When we met, I knew that he had grown up on a farm, was majoring in something agriculture related, but wasn’t planning on actually becoming a farmer. I had grown up in the country, but NOT on a farm. I knew nothing about farming. I didn’t even know there were turkey farms in Iowa.
Now, 9 years later, farming is our life.
At our ribbon cutting and open house in August, 2009.
How did we get here? I often ask myself the same question. :) It’s a long, complicated story, so I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible. But this is the most important thing:
We are farming because we were blessed with an amazing opportunity.
Our decision is allowing us to raise our children in the country, as we had always wanted.
It is giving us a chance to teach them the work ethic and cautious financial management that comes with a farm.
It is allowing me to be a part-time stay at home mom, which was always my dream.
We were able to move from the “big city” and again become a part of a tight-knit community.
The farm is allowing us to “build a legacy” as my husband says…something to be proud of in our retirement, and leave to our children.
When I take time to remember all these things, I know that we made the right decision. Even when things are tough – turkeys die, husband’s working 14 hours days, and we have to travel to family weddings without him – I KNOW that this lifestyle is right for us.
Now, here’s how it all happened:
We were married in 2006, and Bart was working for the USDA at the National Animal Disease Center. He was a lab tech who helped do research on tuberculosis in animals (mostly deer…side note: infected deer can spread the disease to cattle.) He absolutely LOVED his coworkers, and had great (federal gov’t) benefits. His job was not stressful, and he got to come home and relax at 4:30. Although the salary was kind of crummy and there was no room for advancement unless he went back to school (not in his plan) he was pretty happy there.
Then, in the fall of 2007, we were offered an opportunity to begin farming. It’s a very unique situation, and I’m not going to share all the details, but here are the basics.
There is a large turkey farm near us that is owned by a man and his brother-in-law. At the time, the turkey industry was VERY strong, demand for meat was up (largely because of their contracts with Subway and the $5 footlong promotion) and they decided to expand.
So, they approached three young men who they thought might be interested in farming. One was one of their young employees, whose family farmed in another part of Iowa; one was a close friend of ours, who Bart went to high school with and was also in the fraternity with, and finally, my husband, Bart. These three were picked because of their family’s history in farming, their family’s reputation, and their own reputation. We were honored to be asked, and in truth, our first meeting with the farmers felt a little like a job interview.
When we first met with them, they explained their motivation. They told us that they could have put up their own buildings and hired some more employees to run them, but instead, they wanted to invest in young farmers. They wanted to help out a new generation of farmers get started, and they knew that these farmers, who would have some ownership in the turkeys, would do a better job raising them in the end.
They gave us several months to make a decision and we agonized over it. We made pros and cons lists, we prayed, we talked to other farmers, we met with our friend and his wife, we talked to our parents, we talked to each other, and we finally decided that this was an opportunity we could NOT pass up. Did I mention that 3 days before our first meeting with our future partners, we found out we were expecting?!?! As if it weren’t a hard enough decision already!!! The hardest part for Bart was telling his boss and coworkers. He was so close to them, and knew that would be the worst part of leaving his job. The hardest part for me was just wrapping my head around what life on a farm is like. I still have trouble dealing with it at times.
So, there was a mad dash that winter to sell our house, find a new house, and find someone willing to break up a field and sell us chunks of it to put up buildings. All while pregnant. :) Then, through a series of unfortunate events (mostly rain and corn prices) we didn’t get to start in 2008 anyway. Thank goodness Bart still had his USDA job!
Finally, July of 2009, we got our first turkeys. It’s been just over two years and although we’ve had some turkey illnesses and problems with the heat this summer, we are *mostly* sure we made the right decision.
Without getting into too many details, our “partners” own 90% of our farm, and we own 10%. Bart gets paid a “management fee” from them on their 90% of the turkeys. This fee is based on the pounds of turkey we grow, so it is DEFINITELY in our best interest to do the best we can. Our goal (and theirs, I believe) is for us to buy more of the farm as we are able, and eventually own a majority of it. We would also like to diversify and own farmland, and possibly raise some cattle.
We are incredibly indebted (literally and figuratively) to the farmers who gave us this opportunity. Without them, we would never be able to do what we are doing right now. Besides the financial backing, they have given us their expertise and support, helping us every step of the way. I am truly so grateful for them and what they have done. Their generosity, patience and belief in us has enabled us to live out a dream we didn’t even know existed!
So, for everyone who thought we were crazy (and maybe still thinks so!) that is how and why we began farming. Although we (especially me!) are fairly new to this, we are so PROUD to be farmers, and are working hard to make our farm something that our partners and families will be proud of, too!
Twenty thousand (20,000) male baby turkeys (poults) come to us when they are 1 day old. We unload them into a big, toasty, 90 degree barn called the “brooder.” They live there until they are about 5 weeks old. Inside the barn, there are automated feeders and waterers, which are triggered by the turkeys, so they have unlimited access to these. The temperature in the barn is controlled by a thermostat, and there are vents that open and close automatically to help adjust it if needed. The turkeys are not in cages – instead they are on sawdust bedding from a local sawmill. For the first two weeks, chores take a few hours each morning, because of the supplemental feeders and waterers that we fill by hand. We also chore the poults at night, but this is usually a quick walk through to make sure all equipment is running smoothly and that the turkeys seem comfortable.
Around 5 weeks of age, we move the turkeys to one of our two finisher sites. The finisher sites have two 528 foot buildings, so the turkeys have plenty of room to spread out as they grow. These barns also have automated feeders and waterers and again, the temperature is controlled for the turkeys’ comfort. Our finishers are tunnel ventilated, meaning that there are huge fans at one end that suck air through, creating up to a 10 mph breeze in the barns when necessary. (Most livestock barns have curtains instead and rely on the natural breezes to cool animals.) We also have misters that cool the birds in the summer.
The west finishers are on the left, the brooder in the middle, and the east finishers are on the right. Our 100 year old farmhouse is near the brooder, closer to the gravel road. The trees are surrounding Squaw Creek.
go to market, they average about 41 pounds. These are not your Thanksgiving birds! Our birds are processed for lunch meat and ground meat. In fact, the processing plant we use supplies turkey to all the Subways west of the Mississippi River!
In the meantime, we would have already started a new flock in the brooder. At 5 weeks, they would move to the OTHER finisher site. In between flocks, there is about 4 weeks to clean and disinfect, and that is actually the busiest time for us. So, every 9 weeks, we get a new flock of 20,000, and there is no break in between! We raise almost 6 flocks, or 120,000 turkeys, in one year!