A Stone Foundation

12/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

Former Dairy Farmers Now Largest Turkey Growers in Vt.

ORWELL, Vt. — “Dad wanted to do something besides milk cows.”

According to Paul and Frances Stone’s son, Pete Stone, it is the primary reason the couple converted their Orwell dairy farm into what would become Vermont’s largest turkey farm in the late 1980s.

Today, Pete Stone and his wife, Siegrid Mertens, co-own Stonewood Turkey Farm, which sits at the end of Griswold Lane, a dirt road surrounded by mountains and forest in Vermont’s dairy-rich Addison County.

Compared with other commercial turkey farms in the U.S., which can process upward of a million birds a year, Stonewood is small — only about 30,000 birds a year — and it is one of only a handful of turkey farms in the cow-laden Green Mountain State.

However, at this time of year, Stonewood is just as busy as Butterball.

“We enjoy it, and we enjoy making a good, healthy product for other people to eat and enjoy,” Pete Stone said. “And we embraced the fact long ago that the holidays would be our busiest time of year.”

In early November, Pete Stone offered a tour of Stonewood during a rare break in his production schedule, which typically runs from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. between Halloween week and Christmas. Each day basically looks like this: Process and clean the turkeys in the morning, break for lunch and then package the morning turkeys in the afternoon. Packaging typically starts around 3 p.m.

On Nov. 9, Stonewood processed nearly 800 birds. During the week of Halloween, the farm processed 1,150 turkeys a day. For Christmas orders, the farm will process 3,000 birds a day during a five-day window.

During winter months, when six employees are on-site, Stonewood moves about 24,000 pounds of turkey sausage and just as many pounds of ground turkey.

For the six-week Thanksgiving rush — peak season for Stonewood — the Stones hired 24 employees through the federal H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers who anticipate a worker shortage to use nonimmigrant foreign workers to perform temporary, seasonal jobs.

Pete Stone said his H-2A employees — all Jamaicans who also work in a nearby orchard in September — account for 80 percent of his seasonal help. The Stones have relied on the H-2A program for 12 years.

“We use it because we can’t get enough help locally,” Pete Stone said, adding that it would be hard to operate Stonewood without his Jamaican staff. “Most people around here aren’t looking for this type of work, especially for six weeks.”

Pete Stone said large farms, especially those in the South, buy grown turkeys or subcontract with farms to grow turkeys for them. Stonewood buys poults on the day they are hatched from a Canadian hatchery three hours away.

Stonewood grows and processes large-breasted white turkeys, known for their size and meaty legs. A little Stonewood bird is 13 pounds. Larger birds weigh around 23 pounds. Toms can weigh upwards of 40 pounds. During Thanksgiving, the farm mostly sold birds weighing between 12 and 16 pounds.

Stonewood sells wholesale in Vermont and through some stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts through direct accounts. The farm has a distributor in New York that helps with sales in the Northeast.

Stonewood’s 12,000-square-foot processing plant, where a USDA inspector is on-site every day, shares 800 acres with six turkey barns, fields and the residences of both Stone families; Pete Stone and his family, and Paul and Frances Stone. The former owns the business; the latter owns the property.

Paul and Frances Stone are in their 70s, and Paul still helps on the farm, as do Pete and Siegrid’s three children: Nathan, 11; Patrick, 7; and Catherine, 3.

“They love it,” Pete Stone said. “They enjoy doing a little bit of it all.”

Stonewood Farm was named for a piece of land Pete Stone’s grandparents owned in Virginia, where Paul Stone’s mother, Katherine Stone, was a state legislator. Paul Stone was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up on farms in Arlington, Va. Later, he worked as a civil engineer at the Pentagon and was Vermont’s agriculture commissioner in the mid-1980s.

Pete Stone, 48, was in the eighth grade when his family moved to Vermont and bought an Orwell dairy farm from Joel Gratwick. At the time, the Stones milked 65 cows.

In 1988, when Pete Stone was just out of high school, his family started growing turkeys — 300 actually — after his father conducted lots of research and talked to a turkey farmer in Panton, Vt. By the summer of 1989, the Stones had 3,000 turkeys and no more cows.

“The price of milk always seemed to be bad, just as it always does,” Pete Stone recalled. “Dad found he had more control over the price of his product with turkeys. And, I think for him, it was just a new challenge. But I don’t think he was quite ready for the turnover. It took him a while. It was hard for him.”

According to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, the value of turkeys produced during 2012 was $5.4 billion, up 10 percent from $5 billion the previous year.

Turkey production in 2012 totaled 7.55 billion pounds, up 4 percent from the 7.27 billion pounds produced in 2011.

The rise in turkey consumption means growth at Stonewood, but the Stones aren’t ready to take on more stores at the moment. That would require a major addition, because the turkey barns are full, and Pete Stone said he would rather make investments in efficiencies than structures.

“We’ll take it one Thanksgiving at a time,” he said.

There is also the question of which Stone, if any, will succeed Pete at Stonewood Farm.

“Nathan wants to be president, Patrick loves cows and Catherine can’t spell yet,” he said. “Between the three of them, I hope someone grows up to be interested in this.”

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