On Family-Run Turkey Farms, The Circle of Life Is Everywhere

Thanksgiving means just about one thing to Americans: time to eat turkey. But the journey from turkey farm to the table is a long one, and the people who raise turkeys – like Mary Pittman and her family, who own Mary’s Turkeys, a small, family-operated series of farms and processing plants all over the west coast — the holiday means a lot of hard work and confronting the circle of life. For the kids on the family farm, death was an early conversation: they quickly understood that one day the turkeys were there and the next they were not. But that’s just how the family business works.

Mary and her husband took a big gamble 20 years ago when they decided to go all organic and fresh, rooting out antibiotics and GMOs in their birds. But they got lucky, and now they have the most highly recommended chicken according to America’s Test Kitchen, sell their birds (they also raise ducks, Cornish game hens, and chickens) in Whole Foods as well as other organic groceries stories around the country, and two sons who work in the family business with them. 

Here, in her own words, Mary discusses running a family farm, talking about turkey death, and what their success means to them. 

My husband’s father started raising turkeys in 1954. My husband continued on with the business — and then all of the big, large turkey processors and producers in California left the state one by one. My husband felt like we were going to be pushed out of the business — because we were. 

This was before Whole Foods existed. This was before natural grocers, and Sprouts, and before health food was popular. I’ve read labels for over 40 years — I’m going to be 69 in February. So I know a lot about food and nutrition, because in order to function like other people, I have to be very careful about what I eat. Our chickens and turkeys are just chickens and turkeys: that’s one of our biggest assets. That’s what the consumer wants now, and that’s what I needed, for years, in order to function like everyone else. 

My sons were working from the time they were little. Their father, my husband, would take them out to the farms. My son, David, was loading turkeys on trucks when he was 3 years old. In fact, when he was 6 and he went to kindergarten, I said, “Well, David, what are we gonna do? We have a carnival this Saturday, and we have a birthday party. Which one do you want to do?”

He puts his little hands on his hips and says, “Mother, I don’t have time for that. Dad’s short handed and we have turkey coming in.”

He was born an old man! It was hilarious. When David was 3, one night, I told him, “Dad’s not home, he has to put the turkeys to bed,” because when we get little baby turkeys you have to be really, really careful that they don’t die. They have to be warm.

David asks: “Mom, does he put a little blanket over each one?” He was just always very into it. Today, David works for the farm and he takes his own children to the different farms and walks them around. The grandkids are very into animals. 

With our kids, we waited until they were at least six or seven to take them to the processing plants. In fact, my husband, in the beginning, he used to never let me go to the processing plant myself. He’d say, “You really don’t want to see that.” 

But we didn’t start owning processing plants until 2000. So the grandkids have all been born into them. They go to the hatchery — my 12-year-old grandson works at the chicken hatchery in the summers now, in fact. They’re still too young to work at the processing plant, but they’ll be in grandpa’s arms and he’ll take them on tours. And they, yeah, they’ve watched the whole thing. They love to be with their Papa — and whatever time he can spend with them, that’s what they do. Because we all work really, really hard, 12 or 16 hours a day.

My oldest son, when he came into the business, he didn’t like the way chickens and turkeys were processed in the United States. So he kept traveling to Europe. He came back and he goes, “I want to do our chickens and our turkeys like they do there.” They don’t electrically stun them in Europe. They’re all gas stunned, which means they are gently put to sleep.

He was working with Dr. Temple Grandin, the guru of animal welfare. Grandin helped my son pick out equipment and we went with the Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) system. That’s how we process all of our chickens, and we’re saving our money to get one for the turkeys, because the equipment has to be a lot larger. It takes a lot of money. We’re waiting and saving for that, because the first thing we did when we had enough money was to get medical insurance for our employees.

In terms of the kids being around all the death, I’m a tell it like it is type of person. I don’t really sugar-coat anything. We just always tell them the way it is. We do try to shield it from them when they’re really young, but they grow up with it, so they’re just used to it. And they had pets that died, too: dogs and cats. That’s all part of the cycle of life.

One thing my husband advises his friends today is that, if you don’t have your kids work when they’re growing up, they’re not going to want to join the family business when they get older. My boys grew up, working on the farms, helping their dad, going in the truck, running errands. So my oldest and my youngest are still in the business. My middle son became an electrical engineer and got his masters in sustainable energy, so he’s very interested in the environment. So he’s the only one who didn’t stay in it.

We raise half a million turkeys a year. But actually, half a million turkeys is nothing. We used to raise two million a year with other growers underneath us, prior to us going out on our own, and striking out with my name on the business. But in 1998, we went out big with Mary’s Turkeys and only raised 5,000. It was very risky — because we had to sell them. Then, we had about 15 employees, and today, we have 2,000. 

Our chickens and turkeys are in huge demand, so it’s just been constant. We’re so grateful to still be in business, and so are all the other small farmers who work for us, because all of the big companies were taking over, and none of us would ever have been able to independently work our own farm. That’s been such a great miracle for us — because we’ve actually changed the whole industry. I mean, you see it now: everyone wants to be antibiotic free. When we first did it, they all laughed at us. But we’re really proud of the way we’ve changed the industry, where animal welfare is hugely important. But it’s scary to us: all these other companies have billions of dollars, and we don’t. We’re very unique and different: small, family owned, and very active in our business. 

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