Bob Esbenshade, 89, is up early every day this time of year. “He comes alive in the fall,” says son Jim who works with him at the Esbenshade Turkey Farm, the oldest turkey farm in the country established in 1858. Esbenshade turkeys are sold at markets throughout the county and directly from the farm.
Bob is the fourth generation of the family to run the business and says he started helping his dad at age six in 1934, some 83 years ago and he doesn’t plan on stopping.
Bob may not work a 12-hour day anymore and he even takes an afternoon break, but most of the time he can be found in his antique Airstream trailer office not far from thousands of birds getting plump for the holiday season – the farm’s busiest time of the year.
A little closer to home, small farms in insert Lititz, Ephrata or Elizabethtown are dressing and wrapping turkeys for orders as well as taking care of last minute shoppers at on-site stores or at farmers’ markets.
Frozen or fresh, roasted, baked, deep friend or cut up and cooked with vegetables in a crock pot are some of the questions that need to be answered in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas as everyone begins to think about the family holiday meal.
In Lancaster County, there are more than 100 family owned turkey farms with many selling fresh turkeys direct or through farmers’ markets. Many supermarkets offer shoppers a free, frozen turkey during the holiday season but in all probability that turkey comes from a large, commercial farm in Ohio, North Carolina or elsewhere.
Greg Martin, poultry educator at Penn State Extension in Lancaster says that in 2016, more than 7 million turkeys were raised and sold just in Pennsylvania and the number will be at least that this year.
Home cooks and chefs have different opinions about whether a fresh or frozen turkey taste better and the farmers who raise them also can’t agree. Many say the taste is the same but a large, local turkey farmer who has been around for decades feels strongly that fresh is better. “It’s like the Wendy’s TV ad,” he says, “about fresh hamburger tasting better than frozen. It’s the same with turkey. Fresh turkeys just taste better.”
So, fresh or frozen, if locally raised is important, there are a number options for farm-grown turkeys.
ELIZABETHTOWN — Glenn and Nancy Wise at Shady Acres Turkey Farm and Farm Store on Elizabethtown Road have been raising turkeys for 15 years. Son Mervin is now responsible for the operation.
Shady Acres pasture grazes their turkeys. Nancy says she and her husband have always felt that turkeys raised outdoors in fresh taste better.
Several hundred turkeys are sold for Thanksgiving at Shady Acres and the last week is pretty hectic as birds are dressed and prepared for customers. It’s so busy says Mrs. Wise, “We actually enjoy Thanksgiving at a friends’ home.”
LITITZ — The Sensenig family with a huge turkey farm on Reifsnyder Road and a popular poultry store on Furnace Hill Pike and stores at Roots (Manheim) and West Shore (Lemoyne) farmers’ markets, has been in the business for years and is a local favorite for fresh turkeys during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
Meadow Run Farm on Rettew Mill Road, very close to the Ephrata boarder, is a source for pasture raised turkeys. Marcus Horst raises several hundred turkeys for the holiday season. He dresses and freezes the turkeys before sale. Meadow Run also sells farm raised beef, poultry, pork and lamb and from a small retail store next to their 1788 farmhouse.
EPHRATA — Residents looking for a fresh, local turkey are close to Weaver’s on West Farmersville Road in Leola or Meadow Run Farm in Lititz on the Ephrata boarder, or one of the poultry stands at area farmers’ markets. Anna Harnish who raised a small rafter of turkeys at Broody Hen Farm for several years but is no longer in business.
Glenwood Turkeys on Glenwood Drive in Ephrata is run by a second-generation turkey farmer but does not sell dressed birds. The farm raises thousands of live turkeys for distributors who sell to the life poultry markets in the East or area farms. A few individuals who actually want to purchase a live turkey and do their own dressing can do so at Glenwood.
Fresh, locally raised turkeys range from 10 to 30 pounds. Most fresh turkeys are female hens while the larger, male toms — that everyone says tastes the same — are sold to restaurants that have larger ovens to accommodate the size. Howebver, be aware if you purchase a turkey close to the 30-pound size, it is most likely a tom.
Two of the most well-known family farms in the Country are Esbenshade’s in Ronks and Weaver’s Turkey Farm in Leola. Both farms have been operating for generations and sell directly to the public during the holiday season as well as to stores through a distributor.
Bob Esbenshade says he can have more than 8,000 birds in different stages of growth on the farm at any time during the year. To be sure the birds are proper sized for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the poults are purchased at different times in late summer to begin their growth cycle. Between 15-20,000 turkeys are sold each season.
Ask Bob about the history of Esbenshade’s and he has stories. He’ll tell you he started helping his father at age 6 and remembers, as a pre-teen, driving the family Model T Ford and bringing feed to the turkeys which were then pasture raised all before the World War II.
At Weavers, a business started by current owner Sherwin’s great grandfather in 1960, the corn, soy-feed fed turkeys are hormone free as are many Lancaster County family farm raised birds.
Sherwin is a third generation turkey farmer and sells Hybrid brand turkeys as well as the Nicholas’ brand, the first white feathered turkey marketed in 1957 by poultry breeder George Nicholas.
Common turkey breeds raised and sold in the area are Heritage, Broad Breasted, Nicholas and Hybrid and almost all the turkeys sold today are white in color. For centuries, bronze turkeys, a cross between a European domestic turkey and a wild North American bird, were the breed of choice and it is the turkey color depicted in most Thanksgiving artwork.
Bronze turkeys were popular until mid 20th century when the white feathered, Nicholas was first bred and it grew quickly in popularity. Farmers say they have very little request for dark feathered birds.
Native to the Americas, the wild turkey was a major part of the Pilgrims first autumn harvest celebration in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts. Journals show that William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, sent men out “fowling” for wild turkeys for the celebration. The domesticated turkey has been a mainstay of Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday family meals ever since. Even today, Pennsylvania hunters head to the woods in search of the Eastern Wild Turkey during the spring and November season.
One of biggest turkey farms regionally is Cooper Farm in Ohio where 15 million turkeys are raised each year, many for Bob Evans corporation. The popular Butterball brand (and company) in Mount Olive, N.C., is believed to be the largest turkey operation in the country raising millions of poults to maturity and selling fresh and frozen whole turkeys nationwide. Their website is an encyclopedic of all things turkey including cooking tips and menus.
Farmers and retailers alike, as well as countless printed articles about Thanksgiving cooking and holiday meal websites all stress the importance of preparing the bird correctly. Today, young, fresh turkeys are literally that — being grown in a short 16 to 20 weeks. If a young, fresh turkey is cooked too long — using instructions from an older cookbook — you’ll get a “tough and dry” dinner. Everyone recommends cooking by temperature using a good cooking thermometer. Most cooking instructions today say a turkey, with an internal temperature of 165 degrees and thighs at 180 degrees, is done If using a frozen turkey, it is critical that the bird be fully thawed out before being prepared for the oven.
And if you have purchased a fresh turkey and find some ice in the cavity, don’t panic and think you purchased a frozen bird by mistake. Local farmers need to cool the turkey’s body temperature immediately after dressing and do so with ice and water. At times, some of the ice remains and does not melt when the turkey is wrapped and transferred to a cooler until picked up by customers.
On-line, telephone help and in-depth cooking instructions in newspapers and magazines for both the novice and experienced cook and chef are available to be sure you prepare the most flavorful turkey for your family gathering. Although the good old days when your grandmother put the turkey into the over the night before Thanksgiving and cooked it at a low temperature overnight are long gone, those of us who remember it, still miss waking up to that wonderful smell on Thanksgiving Day.