Organic Turkey Farm Coming to Greenwood

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Cari and Judd Culver
Cari and Judd Culver

England’s Kelly Bronze, a three-generation, free-range organic turkey farm, will plant its operation in America in Greenwood on the farm of Judd and Cari Culver. Founded in the 1970s, Kelly Turkeys UK has grown in reputation, and for the last eight years it has been voted England’s best turkey. It now accounts for one percent of British holiday market sales.

The Culvers are opening Kelly Turkeys USA using the same slow-growing breed of turkey and the same methods. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the new operation April 30, saying the Greenwood farm represents an investment of $1.4 million and holds the potential for some 30 jobs. State and local governments threw in $29,000 each in grants to support the selection of the western Albemarle location for the farm.

Cari and Judd met at Virginia Tech while earning graduate degrees in animal science, hers in dairy science and his in poultry. Cari went on to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology and became a cancer researcher. Judd became an expert in turkey nutrition and physiology.

“I didn’t know growing up that I would do turkeys,” he said. After Tech he went to work for Butterball in Georgia and then worked for Mountaire Farms in North Carolina, a massive industrial-style operation. “I didn’t intend it, but I’m a turkey guy and I love it. Turkeys have a lot of personality.”

Meanwhile Cari got a post-doctoral fellowship at a research center in Dundee, Scotland. Judd took a job with a British poultry feed supplier, Alltech, that emphasizes natural nutrition and working with birds’ immune system. The general goal is to replace the use of drugs such as antibiotics or growth-promoters in raising commercial turkeys.

In the course of his job, Culver called on the Kelly farm and met the family. “We hit it off. Derek Kelly was wonderful and so knowledgeable. Over a few years they became good friends and they talked to us about setting up a North American operation.”

The couple has two young sons, one of whom is autistic. They wanted to establish near an autism center, and they were attracted to the Virginia Institute of Autism.

“We wanted to be in the Blue Ridge. But we have a special needs kid and we have to think about that. Albemarle is a farm county and turkeys are perfect for spotty areas where they can find nuts. We looked mainly in Nelson County and then this place [off Jarmans Gap Road, just above the railroad crossing] came up. The price was reasonable. It’s like a blessing, a dream come true.

“We want the community to know we are doing everything the right way. You should be a steward of the land. It’s an organic operation. We’re getting certified. The Kelly way of doing things does not smell. When people hear ‘turkey operation’ they think of the turkey houses in Harrisonburg and the smell. We are beyond ‘organic’ and ‘animal welfare.’ We are not sure we want to use those logos because that would mean a lowering of our standards. The birds are outside. I want the pastures to stay green, so I’m looking at 250 to 500 birds per acre. They’re like cows. They like to hang out in shade and be near the feed.

“Birds don’t urinate,” Culver explained. “Their digestive track moves food back and forth until it’s completely digested, leaving the smallest amount of waste.”

The Culver farm is a little greater than 100 acres, with 30 arable (18 of that is now fenced), and lots of land that is wooded mountainside. “Turkey’s love that,” he said. “It’s perfect for them.”

The Kelly method is seasonal and birds are not raised in winter. Turkeys are hatched in spring in heated brooder houses. By June they are ready to be released. “We say they are ‘bred to be wild’,” said Culver.

Commercial turkeys are typically slaughtered after as little as 10 to 12 weeks, but Kelly Bronze turkeys are raised to maturity at six months, twice as long, fed on a ration of corn and soybeans that Culver devised. “They put down fat in that time. We slaughter when they are ready to be eaten, not when they are heavy enough to fill an order,” said Culver.

A Kelly Bronze turkey is dry-processed when it is harvested, and it dry-ages in 36-degree storage for two weeks. Turkeys range in size from 12 to 22 pounds (14 pounds would be average) and an average ready-to-cook bird sells for $175.

“The taste is not a problem once [a customer] gets over the price,” Culver said. “Fat and dry-age—it’s the best turkey you’ll ever taste. It tastes the way turkey used to taste before mass production. It’s super tender and juicy.”

The flocks of turkeys on pasture are a temptation to predators, so Culver’s woven-wire perimeter fence has hot wires added on the top and bottom. There are two “guardian” llamas, in the field, too, to discourage attackers. “And it’s fenced off from the creek to keep everybody out of there.” Their feed is always available, and a new well supplies water to the pasture. They stay in their pasture until November.

They are processed by hand, 250 birds at a time in one day, dry-plucked with no water used. “Water equals bacteria,” noted Culver. “Ours have no salmonella on them because they are dry-aged. Our birds are so clean from living outdoors.”

“People come to the farm to pick up. We deliver to a few butchers like the Organic Butcher. There are a dozen now.” They rent a truck and do a single route in one day. Turkeys are boxed, then put in an insulated container, and a meat thermometer is provided. A fresh bird can last up to five days.

The goal for this year is to raise 1,000 birds. The farm could be capable of 10,000, but that would mean fencing a lot more mountainside, plus getting a brooder house capable of hatching that many chicks, and that scale is at least three years away, Culver said. The target date for being able to produce their own eggs is 2017. Eleven different lines of genetics are involved.

“We’ll eventually be able to offer different sizes of birds. So far only one line of genetics is being raised,” said Culver. After the hatchery begins in 2018, the farm may need as many as five employees. Until then the work is seasonal. Culver remains employed off the farm in the livestock nutrition business, and for all the ambition of the project, it is a start-up business for the time being.

The farm takes orders online; last year the company was sold out in July. Go to Kellybronze.com. Pick-up day will be November 25.

“No one is going to notice our vehicles. It will just be one day when people come to pick up. We’ll have a feed truck that comes once a month.

“In Europe they know a lot more about their food, partly because it costs more. In America our food is very safe. Our area has a strong local food movement and we fit in perfectly with that. We can provide you the best turkey possible.

The Culvers are renovating an 1870s farmhouse on the property and remodeling a pole barn to become a brooder house. “We want to be active in the community and we want to be transparent. We love it here,” said Culver, “and we’re here to stay. We need to sell turkeys. We’re the same concept as the breweries, but with turkeys. We want families to make our turkeys part of their tradition.”

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