Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Turkey Redux

My ongoing computer education...and labor of the compilation of six years of "The Farmer's Wife", Millie's weekly vignettes of humor, history, reminiscence, and sometimes all three for the Tarkio Avalanche.  It's a dandy occupation for fall nights: sitting on the couch with a baseball game silently playing on the television  and a laptop on my....well, lap.  This week, Blake happens to be hobnobbing with high tech agriculture types at what we common folk might characterize as a "Shark Tank" gathering for agricultural innovation.  As an erstwhile future consumer of what these folks are peddling, his message to them could be paraphrased in the famous, if unsubstantiated, words of Benjamin Franklin upon signing the Declaration of Independence: "If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately." One might assume this message would resonate, perhaps precipitate a rousing 'hooah', but that was not the case.  The participants were "all in" when the subject was the application of technology to seed, machinery, and other inputs for crop production.  But when the subject turned to modern animal production systems, the affirmation could be summarized as 'crickets'.   No surprise to hear that the food served at this gathering was heavy on descriptive terms....and light on substance. It isn't an encouraging scenario: the best and brightest minds toiling on a future for agriculture....that harkens back to mid 20th century for its models of poultry or pork or beef production.

Therein lies a tale....a slice of history, if you will, unadorned, unedited, and without any of the warm feelings modern poultry hobbyists and proponents of the good old days would like to pull over the cold hard facts like a cozy comforter.  

Here's Millie's 2008 article about the rise and fall of pasture turkey production from one Atchison county farmer's  experience back in the 1950s:
 The Farmer's Wife
    THIS PICTURE, TAKEN IN 1956 - Shows 12 acres of turkeys with the same amount on the other side of the hill. Lynn Niemann had sold 6,000 turkeys prior to this picture being taken. He was told that he was one of the largest tur­ key producers at that time.

By this time, many of you have already purchased your turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The size of it depends on how many people there will be gathered around your table on Thanksgiving Day. You had a few things to consider when you purchased it, besides the size of it. What brand would be the best tasting? Would you buy a frozen one or a fresh one? Where would you get the most meat for the cheapest price? Possibly other factors not mentioned here were considered as well. As you took it home, did you ever consider how convenient it was to be able to find a nice fat turkey at your grocery store?

I have visited with Charles Lynn Niemann several different times about his experience with raising turkeys during the 1950's.

Lynn lived north of the Farmers City Store. His father owned 160 acres of which 100 or more he kept in permanent pasture. It was basically unproductive. Looking about for a method to utilize this in a productive manner, Lynn started raising turkeys, ranging them on this pasture land.

The first year he raised 200, then went to 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, and then to 10,000. The first four years in this business were profitable. The last year the market went to pot, thanks to several different companies entering the production, processing, and marketing phase of this business. Consequently, the price in a controlled market did not improve, as well as other factors beyond Lynn's control, and he, as well as many others in the business, absorbed a huge loss and most producers and Lynn quit the business.

One of the hazards in turkey  production on an open range is an unexpected hard rain.  The turkeys drown quite readily if a large or heavy rain is the first exposure to the young turkeys. Lynn witnessed 4,000 drowning the first night  there was  a hard  rain  on  the  range, that  time  a  $12,000  loss, and there was  no way  to prevent  it. There were other factors in the loss of many turkeys due to heat  and predators.

Lynn related to me that during this time of raising these turkeys, it took several truckloads of feed a day. He did not have an adequate supply of water and hired Luke Mather to haul a load of water to the turkeys every day. He eventually had a deep well dug which helped supply water to the turkeys but, again, at a cost.

The year after he stopped raising the turkeys, he planted corn on the acres where the turkeys were raised. There had been so much turkey manure on the land that  the white  corn planted there produced over 170 bushels per acre, a record yield for Atchison  County at that time. 
 When he quit the turkey business, Lynn had suffered  close to a $60,000 loss. That was a lot of money i n the 1950's. , He said, "It was a time in my life not worth remembering."

I believe Millie's piece about Lynn Niemann would resonate with livestock producers attempting to convince the general population and well meaning animal advocates that reinventing the wheel when it comes to animal agriculture will come at a price.  More animals will be injured or killed by predators, weather, and their cohorts in pastures and pens.  Prices will be more volatile and costs will increase.  That is a pattern centuries old.  Only time will tell whether the innovators at Blake's meeting will produce breakthroughs  that change the food system for the better.  But rehashing methods older than our grand and great-grand parents used is surely not the answer....  

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