Every industry has its pioneers and its heroes. But the turkey industry had one of the best in both categories. Fortunately, he was a gentleman who could talk “common sense” turkey.

His name was W.C. “Bill” Bates, the man who transformed a family turkey operation called Bates Turkey Farm in Fort Deposit, Alabama, into a dynamo of innovation and marketing prowess. Unfortunately, Bill passed away in 2013 at a still mentally youthful 89 years of age. But what he triggered with his small family-operated business is the stuff of legacy.

The tall and lanky farm boy, who went on to serve in the military in World War II, never lost his toothy smile, his suspenders or his friendly and casual manner. Above all, he was a listener.

“Daddy would go into a small restaurant or cafe and just sit and observe people, notice their habits and take something from what he was hearing and seeing.” That recollection from his daughter, Rebecca (Becky) Sloane brings to mind what Bill brought about.

Much of Bill’s focus on becoming something special in raising turkeys started when he married his wife Theresa and his Aunt Mamie gifted them nine turkey eggs as a wedding present.

While he was most famous for giving the governors of Alabama a turkey for Thanksgiving ever since 1949, he also learned from his experience. Bill often recalled presenting a live tom turkey to then Gov. Jim Folsom, who tried to kill it in his office and nearly wrecked the place. After that episode, he established and continued a tradition where he presented a live turkey that the governor could pardon, and one already dressed and ready for the oven. He once remarked that even Gov. George Wallace suggested that Bill was “the only Republican I ever liked.” Thus, Bill’s quick thinking led to a nationwide Thanksgiving turkey pardoning.

Industry changes

Becky recalls how the Bates Turkey Farm, established in 1923 by her grandfather, brought about changes to the turkey industry that are taken for granted today:

“Every turkey farm was raising bronze feathered turkeys. But the pigment in the feathers left spots on the dressed turkeys and we went to a white feathered bird that genetically also featured larger breast meat, which people liked the most.

“Daddy believed in taking advantage of the farm’s grove of pecan trees which provided a cooler canopy effect. The birds, now the Nicholas breed, were and still are brought in from Cooper Farms in Ohio as poults (about 5,000 at a time). After a couple of weeks in small houses, they were turned loose under the pecan trees.” This seemingly simple concept paved the way for two more Bates innovations...free range bird husbandry and a natural, organic diet, supplemented by soybeans.

Alabama’s turkey man never stopped thinking. He began the idea of smoking turkeys. While his colleagues chuckled at the thought, Bill had realized that customers could eat more turkey beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas if it could be served as a ready-to-eat entree and snack item.

To promote this concept, Bill bought some land off the then new Interstate 65 highway in Greenville and opened a restaurant aptly named Bates House of Turkey in 1970.

Becky says he did it for two reasons: “He realized that Highway 31 that ran past the farm was going to see a big drop in vehicle traffic. People would be stopping by for smoked turkeys to take to the Gulf beaches, about two hours away. Daddy felt the restaurant would help promote our smoked turkey sales since a lot of people don’t like to cook on their vacation.”

Becky ran the restaurant for years and greatly augmented the turkey dinner restaurant concept to include specialties like turkey chili, turkey sausage, turkey sandwiches and even turkey nachos. Somehow the knack of developing a well-conceived feeding program around turkey seems to have remained in the Bates family. Her daughter Michelle Sloane now manages the restaurant.

Today the Bates Turkey Farm and Bates House of Turkey Restaurant have about 50 employees, including grandchildren who now comprise the fifth generation to work in the family business. Bill’s son John is the plant manager of Bates Turkey Farm and Becky’s daughter Cheri Weekly serves as office manager for the farm and Bates Development LLC. Several grandchildren work for the farm and restaurant. W.C. (Pete) Bates III, John’s son, handles sales for the farm.

Aside from the billboard along I-65, advertising and promotion is all word-of-mouth and a website, batesturkeyfarm.com.

The website shares stories about the family’s history, offers videos on raising and cooking turkeys, and features some special recipes. More importantly, this computer and smartphone targeted site lets those accessing it know that they can buy Bates turkey, fully cooked, frozen or smoked and have it shipped to them in any state.

Retail offerings

So popular and renown has the Bates Turkey Farm become that the smoked and fresh turkey and their related products are now featured in many small meat markets and even in larger chains like Piggly Wiggly.

About 60 percent of their production goes into retail and they do feature a corporate sales division for companies wishing to provide their employees or best customers with holiday gifts. The family estimates they produce and process about 20,000 turkeys each year.

Becky says she and her siblings are looking forward to younger Bates family members becoming more heavily involved in the business.

“We can’t continue to do this forever and want to encourage and help those children and grandchildren take on roles of responsibility in the company. But they have to understand the philosophy that has brought us this far. There has to be time for God and family and the need to keep healthy both mentally and physically.

“We’ve been approached about franchising the restaurant aspect of the business and automating more of our operation. We are not that fully automated since we do small batches of birds at a time and want a plan that we can follow hands on...you might say we still have the ability to customize what we do and we don’t want to lose that. We are comfortable when we can enjoy the family business and keep finding new ways we can put turkey on the plate all year round.

“Getting good help is important to us because we need to have our employees understand and share the same values we have, with no smoke or mirrors. That is a challenge, but we are very blessed. There is a love of doing this in our family.”

Bates Turkey Farm gets up to 20,000 birds to raise at peak times. For the holidays where turkey is the featured entree, the Bates family processes birds and freezes them, sometimes months in advance. This allows more time for the fresh, fully cooked and smoked turkey promotions to be covered closer to the actual holidays.

Hmm...value-added? Now, why didn’t someone think of that years ago?