It's That Time At Maple Lawn

Farm in Fulton raises 20,000 birds a year for Thanksgiving Day

November 19, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Only a few days remain before Thanksgiving, but the fat, white turkeys at Maple Lawn Farm in Fulton seem oblivious to their fate. Even the few that have wandered outside their fenced pen stay close to their fellow gobblers and are easily herded back in.

"I don't think they're very smart," says Chris Bohrer, who has been raising turkeys at Maple Lawn for about 20 years. "If you look at the size of their heads, they don't seem to have a very big brain in there."

Maple Lawn is a rare thing in increasingly suburban Howard County - a family-run farm. And this time of year, it is the go-to place for fresh, local, antibiotic-free turkeys.

The farm dates to 1836, when the German-born Henry R. Jager bought 108 acres for $225. Nowadays, that amount of money would barely pay for a pair of jeans and maybe a T-shirt at Urban Chic, the high-end clothing store in the new Maple Lawn shopping center.

The farm has grown over the years and continues to thrive, even as development - including a sprawling school complex and high-end shops and homes - have sprouted up around it. About 400 cows are on the property, and about 250 produce milk at any one time. The farm also grows crops such as corn, hay and wheat.

And the turkey business, a seasonal supplement to the year-round dairy farm, is stronger than ever, thanks to large orders from Whole Foods and local grocers such as David's Natural Market and My Organic Market.

"The customers love how juicy they are, how flavorful," said Kim Papier, a manager at David's, which has been stocking the turkeys for years.

He said the birds are not given growth hormones, which can make the meat tough, and that, unlike frozen supermarket turkeys, which can be as much as a year old, the Maple Lawn birds are alive just days before they are sold.

"They're local, which is good," he said. "They're all-natural, meaning they don't use antibiotics or growth hormones, and they're free-range." The only thing keeping the birds from being organic is the designation of the feed they are given, he said.

Maple Lawn is a family tradition. Founder Jager passed the operation down to Frederick William, who changed his name from Jager to Iager, and then to Charles Ellwood Iager.

In 1938, shortly after Charles Ellwood married Mary Elizabeth, they started the turkey operation. Their son, Gene Iager, is now at the helm of the farm, with Iager's son-in-law, Bohrer, in charge of the turkey operation.

Bohrer is putting to work his 10-year-old son, a member of the family's fifth generation on the farm. His daughter, not yet 2, has another year or so to go, he said.

Iager, squinting eyes and muddy boots, looks every bit the farmer. He said that farmers are often taken for granted, but 2 percent of the country's population feeds the rest of the nation - and much of the world.

"It's sacrificing, it's hard work and the profitability isn't that great," he said. "You've got to love it to do it."

To confirm details of the farm's history, he pulls a tiny cell phone out of his pocket and calls his mother, Mary Elizabeth, who is 89 and lives in the original farmhouse. "She's a walking miracle," he said. "Answers the phone and takes orders and everything."

Bohrer, who also is a police officer, mans the turkey operation each year, starting in June, when day-old birds begin arriving from a farm in Canada. The birds, packed 100 to a crate, keep coming through August, until 20,000 are on the Fulton property, said Bohrer.

The first few weeks, the birds require a lot of attention, he said. They are kept in pens that are 90 degrees, and have 90 percent humidity, and are checked on several times a day. As summer turns to autumn, the birds grow plumper. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, they weigh as much as 45 pounds, said Bohrer.

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, the farm kicks into high gear. Cardboard boxes are assembled, orders are taken by phone or online and the turkeys are slaughtered and prepared.

During the height of the season, between 40 and 60 workers are brought in for the task. (The rest of the year, the farm has about five full-time employees.) Many work on a conveyor-belt assembly line, removing innards from the plucked turkeys and then assembling the giblets and putting them in bags to be re-inserted.

In the days before Thanksgiving, as many as 2,000 cars a day will arrive, with lines forming before 7 a.m., said Bohrer. Hens sell for $1.75 a pound, and toms, which have a different bone structure and less meat, for $1.50. There's also a $3 charge for prepping the bird. Don't bother with a credit card - only cash or checks are taken.

During Thanksgiving week, the farm no longer takes online orders. Bohrer is urging people who want a Maple Lawn turkey to come by and get one.

Bohrer says Maple Lawn will never have more than 20,000 birds at a time. At that number, he is able to monitor the quality of the operation, he said. Unlike at larger operations, Bohrer said, Maple Lawn birds are soaked for hours in ice water to make them more moist and are kept cold but not frozen.

"We always tell people it's the same turkeys we eat," he said. "I'll probably get mine on Monday."

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