11/10/2012 10:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
Cumberland County Farmer Continues Processing Tradition
MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — Come Monday, the countdown to Thanksgiving begins at the Strock family farm. More than 400 birds will be butchered that first day.
As the packing begins on Day 2, the pace will ease slightly to around 200 per day as the Strocks package and box turkeys throughout the week.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, turkeys will leave the farm at the pace of one every 50 seconds as cars pull into the farm driveway.
“It’s mostly one car equals one turkey,” Kent Strock, owner of Strock’s Farm Fresh Meats, said. More than 700 birds will leave the farm that day.
The customer base is very local. Strock said that — with the exception of a few retail outlets — about 85 percent of the customers reside in a 10-mile radius of the farm, which is along Williams Grove Road near the Pennsylvania Turnpike south of Mechanicsburg.
Between the week of harvest for Thanksgiving and the second, smaller wave before Christmas, more than 1,800 birds will be processed.
“We are not a big operation,” Strock said. However, turkeys are a big seasonal business for the farm.
The Strock family has been raising and harvesting turkeys since the 1930s, starting with an FFA project by Strock’s uncle, George.
His uncle raised those first turkeys and his grandmother dressed the birds in the kitchen sink. His father, Clyde, grew up on the neighboring farm and took over the operation in 1949.
Kent Strock has been around turkeys his whole life, with the exception of a stint in college studying agriculture education and four years working in the Midwest. He in turn took over the turkey business in the mid-1990s.
Since that first FFA project, the farm has always raised and processed its own turkeys.
Strock and his wife, Raelene, opened a retail store on the farm in 1994. They added a turkey drive thru a few years ago as well.
The Strocks say they follow their own system on the farm. The turkey barn was built in the 1950s and remains the same today except for a few updates and repairs over the years.
Birds are raised seasonally, with the first ones arriving in July and the last of the Christmas birds in August.
Bigger is not always better for retail sales in the Strocks’ experience. They say many of their customers prefer a smaller-size bird.
The Strocks go in with the Pallman family in Clarks Summit, Pa., to purchase turkey poults from Canada to get the smaller-size birds. Their larger turkeys are bred by Jansen Farms Hatcheries of Zeeland, Mich.
Strock said Canadian birds have different hybrid lines compared with their American counterparts. At maturity, his Canadian hybrids will dress out to 13 to 16 pounds for hens and 19 to 21 pounds for toms.
The Jansen birds weigh in much larger with hens at 17 to 20 pounds and toms 24 pounds and up. Some of the heavyweight toms will weigh in at more than 30 pounds.
The mix of breeds “gives us a nice variety of birds” to meet customer needs, Strock said.
Customer loyalty is a big part of the business. One customer purchased her turkey from the Strocks each year, starting in 1951. When she died two years ago, the daughter continued the family turkey-buying tradition.
The only advertising that’s done is two letters sent to the customer list, the first in February asking people if they would like to reserve their birds and the second in the fall.
This year, 115 sent in checks to reserve their birds. The incentive is a guarantee that they will receive the size of birds they want.
Customers who pre-pay can use the turkey drive thru to pick up their birds.
Strock said the turkeys he sells are more expensive than those found in grocery stores, but it’s the farm’s attention to detail and hand work that continues to bring people back. Another advantage is that the birds are fresh, not frozen.
The farm’s federally inspected processing plant is about 100 yards from the turkey barn. Strock said it makes a difference because his turkeys do not have transportation stress. When working with the birds, he and others use a calm demeanor so as not to stir the turkeys up.
Higher feed costs this year forced Strock to raise prices. He said he is not about the low-cost ration, but the consistent one. He believes feed consistency results in a consistent flavor year after year. The corn Strock feeds is grown on the farm by his brother, and the balance of the turkey concentrate is purchased from a local mill.
The processing plant is not fancy, and most of the work is done by hand, minus the feather picker that removes most of the feathers.
The birds get a close once-over to make sure there are no feathers still on them before they are moved to the next step where they are cleaned out by hand.
After the turkeys are chilled, usually overnight, they are packaged and boxed. And in less than a week, each will be the centerpiece of a holiday table.
“Our processing facility doesn’t have a lot of machinery, our labor costs are a little higher,” Strock said.
While the buy fresh, buy local movement has not been a part of the farm’s business plan, Strock said he has seen a slight increase in customers interested in locally produced birds.
“When people purchase a turkey from us, they are supporting a local business,” he said.
In addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, the Strocks sell hams from Groff’s Meats in Elizabethtown at Christmas and Easter to keep folks returning to the farm.
They also have a catering business and raise hogs for a local grower. To learn more about the business, go to http://www.strocksmeats.com.