Growing gobblers; Business booming at Alabama's last turkey farm
by Tim Lockette
Nov 27, 2013 | 3120 views |  0 comments | 49 49 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gov. Robert Bentley with Clyde the turkey, who came to the capitol from Bates Farm, the state's only turkey producer. AP photo by Dave Martin.
Gov. Robert Bentley with Clyde the turkey, who came to the capitol from Bates Farm, the state's only turkey producer. AP photo by Dave Martin.
MONTGOMERY — For Rebecca Sloane, Thanksgiving is a holiday, but it isn't much of a break.

On Thanksgiving morning, like thousands of people across Alabama, Sloane will roll out of bed and start cooking a holiday dinner for her family.

On Friday, like no one else in the state, Sloane will leap back into the business of running a large turkey farm.

"I guess we'll get to rest in January," said Sloane, chief executive officer of Bates Turkey Farm in Fort Deposit.

A family business, the Bates farm is the only commercial turkey farm in the entire state of Alabama, according to the Alabama Egg and Poultry Association. Begun when Sloane's grandparents got nine turkey eggs as a wedding present in 1923, the farm now raises and ships around 100,000 smoked and frozen turkeys a year, by Sloane's estimation.

Most of those orders will ship between mid-November and Christmas, which makes this week a hectic one for Sloane. There's also a last-minute rush to pick up cooked turkeys at Bates House of Turkey, the restaurant the family operates in nearby Greenville.

"We've been making dressing and gravy all day," Sloane said in a telephone interview from the restaurant on Tuesday. "The ovens haven't stopped."

Chicken is a huge industry in Alabama — to the tune of $288 million per year, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Turkey, not so much. Decades ago, dozens of large turkey farms were scattered across the state. Over the years, most packed it in, as turkey production moved to the Midwest. Sloane said she's not entirely sure why.

Climate may be a factor. Sloane said the state's hot, humid summers are terrible for farm turkeys, at least when they're kept in turkey houses. Farmers can keep turkeys alive through the summers, but only after spending a lot of money on fans, Sloane said.

That hasn't been a problem at Bates Farm, where turkeys were free-range before free-range was a thing. Sloane said the Bates family has always raised turkeys in the open, under the shade of pecan trees.

It doesn't hurt that Sloane's father, William Bates Jr., was good at marketing. He teamed up with a smokehouse in Tallassee to sell smoked turkeys — the first farmer in the state to do so.

"We provided something no one else had," Sloane said.

Bates had one other thing no one else had: pardoned turkeys. Every Thanksgiving, the farm sends a turkey — always named Clyde — to the governor to be pardoned.

Bill Bates, who died in August at 89, attended more than 60 turkey-pardonings. Sloane said he also gave the pardoned turkey its perennial name.

This year's Clyde, like those before him, is spending the holidays in a pen with his girlfriend, Henrietta, at a farmer's market in Montgomery. If no one buys them as pets, Sloane said, they'll return to the farm.

"We don't eat them," Sloane said. The fast-growing turkeys might live two to three years, Sloan said, and typically grow too fat to walk.

Sloan said the farm will see lots of business between now and Christmas as people plan ahead and start buying turkeys for the holidays. She said the family's restaurant sees a real crunch in the days before Thanksgiving, because people wait until the holiday is almost upon them before picking up a bird.

"Some people put it off until the last minute," she said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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