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West Virginia turkey grower reaps his returns this week

Nov. 21, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

RENICK, W.Va. -- When it comes to raising turkeys for a Thanksgiving market, timing is everything.

Renick farmer Don Blake learned that eight or nine years ago when he made his first foray into turkeys.

"The first year, I got broad-breasted whites from a farm in Ohio. Everyone said they're so hard to raise, so I got them the end of May so I'd have time to replace them if they didn't survive," he said.

Just one of 26 turkeys died.

"They just grew and grew," Blake said. By the time they were slaughtered a couple days before Thanksgiving, the smallest was 28 pounds, fully dressed out, and the largest was 43 pounds.

"A guy from Beckley bought the 43-pounder and cut it into four pieces," Blake said. It served the man's family through four holidays.

"They say the only thing dumber than a turkey is the man who raises them," he said, laughing.

This year he bought 75 medium-breasted white poults from a breeder in Lewisburg in June, right before the derecho knocked out his power for 14 days. They survived and have grown to weights that will be much more consumer-friendly come Tuesday, when Blake and some hired help will slaughter them and sell them fresh to customers.

Blake is among a relative few West Virginia farmers who raise free-range turkeys, meaning those not kept in cages, but allowed to roam pastures where they supplement their diet of high-protein turkey feed with grass and grit necessary for their digestion.

His modest enterprise -- about 75 turkeys and 700 chickens he will slaughter himself, eggs from the chickens and a dozen or so pigs that he'll sell at market -- supplements his income decently. This year's brood of turkeys, which will range in size dressed from 15 pounds to 28 pounds or so, will go for $55 to $60 apiece.