Back in June, the thousands of turkeys that dot the front acreage of bucolic Maple Lawn Farms were just 1 day old.
Since then, the young fowl, known as poults, have grown sufficiently to be ready for the Thanksgiving harvest — even the younger ones, kept in barns, that arrived at the 1,000-acre Fulton dairy farm in August.
By staggering the ages of the 20,000 free-range turkeys the farm raises each year, Maple Lawn, founded in 1839 and still operated by the Iager family, is able to offer customers freshly slaughtered, all-natural turkeys that range in weight from 10 pounds to 40 pounds, said the turkey farm's manager, Chris Bohrer.
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The son-in-law of co-owner Gene Iager, Bohrer is a full-time Montgomery County police officer who takes three weeks off in November to pitch in at the family farm. He began working there after high school 25 years ago, where he met and eventually married Gene's daughter, Tanya. He continues the work, he said, because he enjoys it.
The turkeys are a calm lot, standing together in close proximity in their fenced-in pen and watched over by Fred, an amiable Maremma Sheepdog bred in Italy as a livestock guard dog. The cream-colored canine keeps such predators as foxes, skunks and possums at bay.
The fowl are able to enter a 270- by -80-foot barn as they please, and 7,000 or so were standing wing-to-wing inside on a recent chilly and overcast day.
"They're quite content," Bohrer said, explaining that their diet is overseen by a nutritionist and they have access to straw bales and other "enrichments" — the equivalent of gym equipment for turkeys, keeping them stimulated and happy.
The males, which are called toms, are distinguishable by their larger size, blue head markings and the loud gobble sound they make. The smaller females, known as hens, seem to gurgle, he said.
"Some of the females are preparing to brood, which is their instinct, but we won't be letting them do that, of course," he said.
Only two or three full-time farm hands work with the turkeys, which don't require constant attention.
Gene Iager "sees them every day, though, from the day they're delivered by a Virginia hatchery until they're slaughtered," Bohrer said. "It's his passion."
Automation, supplied with energy from solar panels installed two years ago, helps take care of a lot of the work, he said. The turkeys are never trucked anywhere; they even walk to the slaughterhouse on the property, which reduces stress on the birds.
"People like to understand where their food comes from" and that's why customers return year to year, the manager said.
Harvesting takes place on several days and slaughtered turkeys are placed in a 60- by 60-foot drive-in freezer and kept at 28 degrees. Turkeys stored above 26 degrees are considered fresh by the FDA, he said. The water surrounding the turkey in the bag freezes at 32 degrees, but the turkey does not, he noted.
Bohrer's uncle-in-law, Charlie Iager, co-owns the farm founded by his and his brother Gene's grandfather, Henry Iager. The current owners' late parents, Ellsworth and Mary Iager, started the turkey operation after receiving turkeys as a wedding gift in 1938.
Though Ellsworth died in 1987, Mary Iager continued for two decades as the matriarch of the family, answering phones at the farm and the like until she became ill and passed away in 2007 at age 89.
"She had her hand in everything," he said.
Maple Lawn Farms has seen changes over the years.
"Everything's gotten bigger, but the turkey farm is still a subsidiary of the dairy operation," which involves 100 head of Holstein cattle, Bohrer said.
In recent years, housing has been "the farm's biggest business," he said. The farmland is situated just up the road from its namesake planned community, and just beyond the campus where Fulton Elementary, Lime Kiln Middle and Reservoir High schools are clustered together.
"The home farm of 106 acres is not slated for development," he emphasized. "There's no chance of it going away."
When Thanksgiving season rolls around, the turkey operation comes into its own as customers form a single-file line to pick up their orders. All 20,000 turkeys are expected to be sold to stores, businesses and individual customers by Christmas.
"Turkey at Thanksgiving is like fireworks on the Fourth of July," Bohrer said. "You gotta have it."