Koch’s Turkey Farms is small by poultry industry standards. It’s a turkey growing and processing company based outside Tamaqua, a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania, in a farming region that used to be known much more for its coal-mining than its agriculture. Tamaqua is centered in an area where millions of tons of anthracite, also known as hard coal, were mined by Irish and other immigrants for many years. But when the coal-mining died, much of the area reverted to agriculture, with small multi-crop farms – typical of Pennsylvania and eastern US farming – coming back.

“In 1939, my grandfather ran a multi-species farm here in Tamaqua,” says Duane Koch, who with his sisters Barb Koch, Beth Argal and Pam Williams, run the 60-acre turkey growing and processing operation today. The turkey farm was started by the siblings’ parents, Lowell and Elizabeth Koch. “My Dad was one of four boys in the family, and while he got the turkeys and the other animals, it evolved into the full-time turkey farm,” Duane Koch says.

Lowell and Elizabeth Koch are now retired but both still come down every day to the farm to work. Still, most of the active day-to-day operation is carried out by Duane Koch and his three sisters, with Koch’s son, Brandon, 24, now involved in the business. The four siblings work well together. “Yes, it’s probably unusual for four siblings to be running a company like this and getting along with each other very well,” Koch says with a laugh.

When the original farm was started, his grandfather had laying hens for eggs, beef cattle for meat, dairy cattle and a feed business. “Then when my parents took it over, they decided to concentrate on turkey, and today the four ‘kids’ raise free-range turkeys fed a vegetarian diet of locally grown corn and roasted soybeans. The birds never receive antibiotics and growth promoters at any time. Animal by-products, fats, bakery or pet-food products are never used in our poultry feed,” he says.

The Koch farm, including the turkey houses, feed mill, hatchery, retail store and processing facility, all located on the property near Tamaqua.

With that setup, in what’s known as the beautiful Lewistown Valley, the turkeys live their entire lives on the same land.

“Our turkeys meet the very strict Certified Humane guidelines and we scored 100 percent on a turkey welfare and humane practices audit by Steritech,” Koch says. The guidelines take into account the practical standards for the proper care and treatment of turkeys.

Small fish in a big pond

The poultry industry has become more vertically integrated, which is also true in turkey production and processing. Koch says there are only 15 really large turkey processors left in the US, and Koch actually ranks 23rd.

While Koch describes his farm as “small,” the company still manages to process 700,000 birds a year. “Believe me, in this industry, that is small,” Koch says. “Compare that to the biggest processor who does 60 million a year.”

He says there are only two major turkey breeding companies left in the US: Aviagen Turkeys, based in Lewisburg, W. Va., that markets strains like Nicholas Turkey, and Hendrix Genetics, from Boxmeer, Netherlands, that breeds and sells Hybrid Turkeys. Broad Breasted Bronze Turkeys are also raised in small flocks. Koch Turkey Farms processes and sells all three. “Three years ago, we processed 300 of the Bronze, last year we did 7,000,” Koch says.

His father, Lowell, began the business with two turkey pens. Today, there are 19 turkey barns on the main property. Around 20 contract growers supply turkeys for Koch, most of which are located northwest of Harrisburg, or east of Lancaster near Morgantown.

On the South Farm, about six miles from the main facility, there are 26 more barns. “I like the fact my growers and even our farm itself is spread out. That’s good for bio-security, and in case there’s influenza, not everything is in one place in case there needs to be quarantine,” he says.

Most of the contract growers do their work in two stages – breeding and finishing. The breeder barns are 200 feet long, while finishing barns are 400 feet in length.

Koch left in the 1980s when “we struggled economically,” he explains. “I went to Wenger Feeds in Lancaster County to manage a huge poultry agri-business for four years. But 16 years ago, my Dad said he’d had enough, and he wanted me to come back and run the company.”

Koch says he didn’t sleep for two weeks.

“I tossed and turned in bed every night, trying to decide what to do. Some of my siblings had left also, and were doing other things. But I came back here, in 2004, to begin running the processing business with my sisters, who also came back.

“Here I am, 55 years old, and I’m doing this,” Koch says. He and his sisters still run the farm. And sales have increased times five since he came back to run the company.

“When I came back, we were selling 160,000 birds. In 2008, we increased to 900,000. But high corn prices forcing higher feed costs caused a back off in sales the past couple of years, we’re at about 700,000 birds now,” he says.

Small, but professional

The brooder or starter houses are filled with small birds for four or five weeks, and the birds are free to run around the barn, with enough space to keep them free from stress. The finishing barns are used for live grow-out, until the birds are ready to go to market, which takes 18 to 20 weeks, longer because no antibiotics are used unless they become ill. Ventilation is controlled by a computer, so that removes the possibility of human error.

There is just a single line, which processes 20 birds a minute. The company employs 90 people. Their products are sold through the Mid-Atlantic states, New England, the West Coast and the Midwest around Chicago.

Koch sells between 14,000 and 16,000 lbs. a week to Whole Foods, its largest customer. “They audit everything here at Koch’s Turkey Farm from the delivery of the poults to how they’re raised, including documenting standards of feed and water they receive, down to how many pounds of turkey can be raised in so many square feet,” Koch says. “We’re only allowed to grow 7-1/2 lbs. per square foot, while the larger industry can grow 14 lbs. per square foot, so that’s a big space difference.”

To no one’s surprise, Thanksgiving is still a high-demand time for turkey, but people eat more turkey all year round than they used to.

Only 31 percent of American turkeys are consumed during the holidays today, 69 percent are consumed the rest of the year. Each year, American turkey farmers produce about 250 million birds, about 7.1 billion lbs. live weight, or 5.6 billion lbs. dressed weight. More than 10 percent is exported to other countries, and the average American consumes about 16 lbs. per person annually.

Value-added options

While turkey used to be a commodity product, it is becoming a value-added product. The company produces fresh and frozen turkeys plus turkey products, selling more than 50 products produced at the farm. Fresh products include fresh, young, all-natural turkeys, including whole birds and parts, and ready-to-cook, from 12 to 30 lbs. They also offer fresh, young, certified-organic turkeys ranging in size from 12 to 24 lbs. These fresh products consist of smoked turkey breasts, thighs, drums and wings. Another product is certified-organic turkey bacon

Frozen products include all-natural turkey with mashed sweet potatoes and parmesan cheese, gravy, stuffing, carrots and green beans, as well as a heat-and-eat turkey pot pie. Other frozen meals include turkey lasagna, turkey chili, turkey Alfredo and turkey burgers.

The company also sells a line of seasoned turkey fillets, including Korean sesame, honey ginger, ginger teriyaki and lemon pepper. Other products include ground all-white meat turkey, turkey patties and turkey sausage patties, and on the deli line, oven-roasted and smoked turkey breast, and vanilla pepper turkey breast.

It may be a small operation by industry standards, but Koch’s Turkey Farm is going strong.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, contributing editor and feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.