It’s hard to hear what anyone’s saying on the turkey evisceration line on account of the lung gun and other contraptions you’ve never heard of and might not want to know about.
With approximately 46 million turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving each year, thousands of workers across the country have to take a living thing and make it food, often by hand. Here at the Howe Farm in Downingtown, steam is billowing up from the scalder, turkeys are tumbling around in the plucker, and that’s not cranberry sauce on the floor. When it comes to retracing a fresh or frozen turkey’s path, knee-high muck boots and a rain slicker help.
“Are you queasy?” co-owner Julie Howe, 39, asked a teenage visitor about to walk down the line.
The Howe Farm, a small operation compared with other processors across the state, will process 4,400 turkeys in four days. Pennsylvania is ninth in the United States for turkey production, according to the state’s Farm Bureau, with 6.6 million turkeys raised and slaughtered by approximately 1,029 farms. Minnesota leads the nation with 48 million turkeys produced annually.
Most of the Howe Farm turkeys go to small markets, such as Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philly, but some travel only about 30 feet to the farm’s small storefront, where customers pick up their order. With second-generation turkey farmers Julie and Nathan Howe running the operation, and all five of their children lending a hand, it’s literally mom-and-pop. There are also cousins, neighbors, a few Amish, and friends-of-friends, some driving in from as far as Michigan for this annual, four-day rite of autumn at the 10-acre farm. It’s loud, bloody, and exhausting, and all the extended Howes love it.
“Hey, ice man, giddyup!” Julie Howe yelled to Tom Mitrakos, a cousin who drove down from Long Island.
Spreading 50-pound bags of ice over fresh turkeys is one of the cleaner jobs on the farm. Nathan Howe runs the scalder, and that’s not so clean. Once the turkeys are killed with an electric knife, he drops them into the scalder, filled with water anywhere from 143 to 148 degrees. That’s the sweet spot for removing feathers. Too hot, and the skin comes off as well.
Nathan Howe works construction full-time, but on this day, he’s in rain gear, still soaked from steam and covered in turkey bits. He looks like a fisherman caught in a turkey hurricane.
“Oh, I take very long showers at the end of the day,” he said, laughing. “At least 20 minutes.”
Nathan Howe’s parents purchased the farm in 1988, taking on an existing turkey operation. They bring the turkeys in during the summer, often from Illinois or Virginia, and raise them to various sizes, anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds. This year’s order, he said, was placed well before the pandemic, so there was a concern that they’d have leftovers. That hasn’t been the case.
“Our orders are up this year,” he said. “People are ordering smaller turkeys, for smaller gatherings. Our 10- to 12-pound turkeys are going to sell out this year.”
The hardest part of Thanksgiving 2020, he said, is figuring out how many turkeys to order for 2021.
“Every turkey farmer is in the same boat,” he said.
It’s hard to say what the most difficult job is at Howe Farm. Some are more physical or bloodier than others. Seth Harnish, 18, volunteered to use the electric knife. Harnish doesn’t bother to wash his sweatshirt during the four days of processing, leaving it outdoors when he gets home. The tractor driver who ferries crates of turkeys from their large pens to the processing line at least gets some fresh air.
Workers say the lung gun, a long vacuum that sucks out, well, you know, is the most monotonous job, but better than doing it by hand. Beside him, the “craw-puller” may have pulled the shortest straw, crouching below a hanging turkey like a catcher with his hand up inside.
During a breakfast break, about two dozen people file into the Howes’ farmhouse for catered trays of egg casserole and coffee. Boots stay parked outside, by the back door. These chaotic days feel more like a reunion than a business for most of them, though Julie Howe rarely gets a break, even when it’s time for one.
“Hello, Howe Farm,” she repeated every time the phone rang, until it stopped for a minute.
“Oh no, did we just lose power?” Julie Howe said in the kitchen as the ceiling fan slowed to a stop.
Mary Howe, 77, said she’s done every job on the farm, never the boss but admittedly “bossy.” She and her late husband, Lamar, had 13 children, including Nathan.
“I wasn’t tall enough and didn’t have the strength to pull the guts out. And the lung gun, no way I was running the lung gun,” she said. “And I’m retired now and just here to enjoy the grandchildren.”
This week, a line of cars will stretch down the driveway as a thousand or so customers will come to pick up their turkeys. On this day, only one stopped by, a woman who was having an early Thanksgiving with a 22-pounder. Nancy Eberly said a supermarket bird is out of the question.
“I’ve been back, so I’ve seen how it’s done,” Eberly said as she wrote a check. “I was going to get a 30-pounder, but I can’t get them to fit in my tray.”