Turkey producers reach the home stretch: Orwell farm raises 22,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving

ORWELL — Two thousand five hundred turkeys gobble as they mill about in one of Stonewood Farm’s eight massive turkey barns. Up in front is a pen of huge critters that will each yield a 50-pound bird, once roasted. Imagine that on your Thanksgiving table (and the oven that could hold it!).
A little over a week before Thanksgiving, Orwell’s Stonewood Farm is going full speed, close to 12 hours a day, seven days a week to process the 22,000 birds raised for this year’s Turkey Day.
Stonewood’s turkeys are raised, slaughtered, processed and packaged on the farm. In large refrigerated rooms, thousands of turkeys now wait in cardboard boxes — labeled by weight, some shrink-wrapped onto palettes — to be packed into a waiting distributor’s truck and make their way to grocery stores around New England. The Middlebury Natural Foods Coop will soon make its annual drive to the farm to pick up this year’s turkey order. And many longtime customers will simply come to the farm themselves to get their bird and take it straight home to the refrigerator.
Looking at the semis parked outside Stonewood’s loading dock early last week, Stonewood founder Paul Stone (now ostensibly retired) reflected that in an earlier time some turkeys even walked to market.
“They used to make them walk all the way to Boston,” he said. “You’ve heard of the town Goose Green? You know why it’s called that? Because they used to drive turkeys and geese to Boston. The turkeys and the geese would spend the night on the green, so that’s why it was called Goose Green. And they used to put tar on their feet to protect their feet from the wear and tear.”
Stonewood Farm, which raises more turkeys than almost any other farm in the state except for Misty Knoll Farm in New Haven, got its start some 40 years ago, when Paul and Frances Stone bought their Orwell acreage and began dairy farming. The Stones had looked at farms all over Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. Paul Stone said the couple settled on the Orwell location because it was the one “we could afford to pay for by farming. We didn’t have to have another job.”
After over a decade in dairying, the low price of milk drove the Stones to experiment.
“We tried growing pigs. We tried dairy veal. We tried dairy beef. We tried growing spring wheat for bread making. And in 1987 we started growing turkeys and it worked. The other things didn’t work. Turkeys worked.”
That first year, they raised and sold 300 turkeys to a supermarket chain in the Burlington area.
   PAUL STONE, FOUNDER of Stonewood Farm in Orwell, holds onto one turkey in a barn filled with thousands of turkeys awaiting processing. The farm is now owned by his son Peter Stone and daughter-in-law Siegrid Mertens.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By 1989 they had sold all the cows and gone into turkeys whole hog. In 2009, farm ownership passed to son Peter Stone and his wife Siegrid Mertens, who now run the family business. Stonewood now raises an average of 32,000 turkeys a year, some for the Thanksgiving and Christmas markets and some for their year-round sales of ground turkey, turkey sausage and turkey breast.
Last year, the farm took a pummeling when a disease outbreak claimed 15,000 turkeys in the weeks just before Thanksgiving. The outbreak is believed to have been introduced when a weasel, fox, possum or similar predator broke into one of the barns. The farm had to prioritize which customers it could supply, focusing on local and longtime customers like the Middlebury and Brattleboro coops, while disappointing some others.
As the Agency of Agriculture’s Kristin Haas observed at the time: “That’s a significant impact, with really, really crummy timing. Not that there’s any good timing for that, but, boy, that was about the worst that it could have been.”
   HUNDREDS OF BOXED turkeys, stacked in refrigerated storage at Stonewood Farm in Orwell, are ready to be shipped for the upcoming holiday. Stonewood is processing 1,000 turkeys a day to meet demand.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Peter Stone said that he expects it will take the farm about four years to recover financially from its 2016 losses, which are estimated in the range of $300,000 to $500,000. He noted that there’s no real insurance to cover farmers from this kind of event. The farm had applied and appealed twice to a federal livestock disaster program “but they just wouldn’t cover it,” he said.
“That’s farming,” he added.
In response to its 2016 losses, Stonewood rolled up its sleeves and did more. By the time the year concludes, they will have raised 38,000 turkeys — 6,000 more than their previous average. The Stones expanded their 2017 harvest by insulating and heating a barn to raise turkeys last winter and by adding yet another extra round of poults (young turkey “chicks”) in April. Typically, the Stonewood turkey growing season doesn’t start until things warm up in late May.
Looking ahead to 2018, Peter Stone said he plans to go back to raising 32,000 turkeys and back to starting poults in May, June and July only.
Stone said that sales are strong this year but that “last year hurt our sales a little bit,” as some customers turned to new suppliers.
His message for this year: “We have plenty of turkey, and it’s just as good as it always was.”
Asked what makes a good turkey, Peter Stone said: “Some of it has to do with feed. We don’t add fat. So it takes them a little longer to grow. And of course here in Vermont toward the end of the fall it gets cooler, so they start putting on a layer of fat. That’s what helps make them juicy when you cook a whole turkey.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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