Former Dairy Farmers Find Success With Turkeys

12/2/2013 6:30 AM
By Sarah L. Hamby Connecticut Correspondent

STERLING, Conn. — “Come here and get your Connecticut Thanksgiving.”

That’s the advice of Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm’s Rick Hermonot — full-time Farm Credit East consultant by day, but full-time farmer (and public relations specialist) at heart.

Ekonk Hill is a family farm in northeastern Connecticut and is the largest turkey producer in the state. But Rick and Elena Hermonot, now proud to host more than 3,000 free-range turkeys on 10 acres of New England land, were not always turkey farmers.

The long-married pair started out as dairy farmers. The transition to turkeys and to retail began in 1994.

“We really wanted to go into ag retail,” Rick Hermonot said. “We like people. We really like people. We actually did some thinking, we thought about ag dairy. But the investment was huge to get into bottling milk. We’d always been interested in turkeys. So we decided, Let’s get into that.’”

As dairy farmers, the couple struggled to make ends meet.

“Land is at a premium here, but people were not As a dairy farmer you need to be big. That’s the trend in any commodity agriculture. That’s the problem in Connecticut because we don’t have the acreage to support that,” he said. “Fifty cows used to be a family farm that would support a family. Now you need 500. To have that you have to have land; 500, 1,000, 2,000 acres. That’s the big challenge in Connecticut. Commodity ag in Connecticut requires more land base.”

In 1998, the couple raised 15 turkeys for friends and family members. From 200 cows to 60 turkeys, they started to build a market.

“Being in Connecticut, this is the heart. Massachusetts and Connecticut are two states that have a lot of farms that have direct-to-consumer marketing,” he said.

He planned to work on the farm full time but the venture wasn’t sustainable, so he went back to work.

He’s worked off the farm as a consultant for 15 years.

“It’s kind of fun. I enjoy that. I keep thinking I’ll wean off. But my wife and daughter are full time on the farm and they really don’t need me,” he said.

Elena Hermonot only recently left her job working third shift at the local hospital. She currently mans the farm’s retail store seven days a week, making sure there are always fresh muffins, pies, hot cider, homemade ice cream and local wares for customers to sample and take home.

“The locally grown movement is huge,” Rick Hermonot said. “It’s been gaining momentum over the past decade — it contributed to the opening of the store seven years ago. It’s grown, even with the economy.”

Not only is the store successful, so is the turkey business. The popular local farm sells out every year, and Rick Hermonot compares picking out a Thanksgiving turkey to tagging a Christmas tree.

“Get your turkey from the local farm, right nearby,” he said. “It tastes better. And it becomes a family tradition. Some people drive two-and-a-half hours to get their turkey. It’s a pretty drive that doesn’t hurt.”

It’s that group of people — those dedicated “buy local” folks — that keep his business thriving. In fact, he’s thinking of expanding next year to about 5,000 turkeys — the limit allowed without a full USDA inspection.

The most popular turkey at Ekonk Hill is the Broad-Breasted White. These turkeys are purchased at various times throughout the spring and summer to give consumers a variety of weights available. When a turkey is about 5 weeks old, they are moved to pasture. All of the turkeys are pasture-raised, free to roam on about 10 acres of grass-covered field.

August chicks weigh about 10 pounds come Thanksgiving, but Ekonk Hill can provide a much larger Thanksgiving bird.

“We sell big ones 40-pound turkeys. One customer wants to buy a 50-pound turkey. The closest we ever came was 48,” he said.

Rick Hermonot said he cautions consumers not to be misled by turkey terminology. “Cage free,” for instance, does not necessarily mean a happier meal.

“They are on a floor, in a building, all of their lives. They never see sunshine, or get fresh air, they are highly confined,” he said.

Ekonk Hill turkeys are pasture raised “not just on the ground,” he said, “on green grass. It means you have a lot of land.”

And while his turkeys are not raised organically, he said he tries to keep their environment “as natural as possible.” The turkeys are fed a corn and soybean mix with vitamin and mineral supplements from Taunton, Mass., and receive no growth stimulants. Antibiotics are also avoided, unless they become ill.

“If they get sick, we give them antibiotics. If your child got sick, you would give them medicine. But it’s been four years since we’ve had to do that,” he said

Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys are also available at Ekonk Hill, as are multiple heritage/heirloom turkeys, which are often smaller than newer breeds, have darker meat, are capable of reproducing on their own and are much more expensive. They’re also more difficult to raise, he said.

“They can fly, they grow real slow and the babies are $10-$12 apiece,” he said.

A typical Ekonk Hill turkey cost $4.39 a pound. A heritage turkey cost $8.99 a pound.

“Ironically,” he said, “we still sell out of these.”

Heritage turkeys include old-fashioned, Narragansett, Bourbon Reds, Royal Palm and others.

Rick Hermonot said he will sell more of his turkeys this year, and more next year, since Connecticut passed Public Act No. 10-103, An Act Concerning Farms, Food, and Jobs, in June 2010. The bill was amended this past March in direct response to concerns Rick Hermonot shared with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

During a visit to the local farm in November 2012, Rick Hermonot spoke with Malloy and explained that some of the wording in the 2010 Act brought new hardships.

“The governor was here and he said, What can we do to help grow your business?’” he said.

He told Malloy that he wanted to sell Ekonk Hill turkeys in local stores. He wasn’t sure what to think when the governor turned to Steven K. Reviczky, commissioner of agriculture, and said, Let’s make that happen let’s get that done.’”

“Malloy ordered his turkey here last year,” he said.

Two weeks later, the Department of Agriculture called. A month later, the bill was in front of the legislature. By May 2013, it was signed.

The bill reads, in part: “Poultry processing facilities that meet the applicable criteria for federal Food Safety and Inspection Services exemptions and that have passed Department of Agriculture facility inspections” should be designated as approved food sources for consumers, restaurants, hotels and retail food establishments.

In a press release, Reviczky called the bill “Gov. Malloy’s own initiative This change resulted from Gov. Malloy’s taking time to tour farms in the state, recognizing a disparity and working quickly and effectively to expand availability of Connecticut Grown poultry.”

Ekonk Hill turkeys were available in some specialty stores this year and Rick Hermonot said he looks forward to adding more.

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