11/23/09 — Talking turkey ... lots of it

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Talking turkey ... lots of it

By Laura Collins
Published in News on November 23, 2009 1:46 PM

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News-Argus reporter Laura Collins empties a water dish inside a turkey house on the Bryant Worley farm near Princeton. Worley is a contract grower for Goldsboro Milling Co. Maintaining a clean water supply is essential to the birds' health.

The Job: Turkey farmer

The Company: Bryant Worley Farms, Inc.

The Location: Princeton

I am now only one degree of separation from the president. I'm practically vice president. Well, not really, but I did meet the turkey that is being sent to the White House this week while working at Bryant Worley Farms.

Since that turkey and its backup are being sent to the White House and then later to Disney World once they are pardoned, they are being kept in a separate pen so they can get used to human interaction and music. Once the turkey was picked, Disney mailed a CD of the parade music so it can be played for the turkey during the day, in hopes he won't get scared while he is in the parade.

The White House turkey was one of about 25,000 turkeys at the Worley farm. I spent the morning going through the five turkey houses with Owner Bryant Worley and his son-in-law Ben Thomas washing and disinfecting the water bowls. Worley, a contract grower for Goldsboro Milling, has been raising turkeys for 25 years. They are very consciencious about cleanliness at the farm, so we wore coveralls, plastic gloves, plastic shoe covers, face masks and a hair net in the turkey houses. Before going into each one, we also had to step in a bowl of disinfectant so as not so carry anything in with us on our shoe covers.

Worley gets the turkeys when they are 6 weeks old and raises them until they are 20 to 22 weeks old. When they are born, turkeys weigh about three to four ounces and are brought to Worley's farm all on one truck. At 22 weeks, they weigh between 40 to 42 pounds and it takes 31 18-wheelers to haul them off. Worley said the rate at which the turkeys grow is the equivalent of a baby, who weighs 8 pounds at birth, weighing 1,000 pounds by the time he is a year old.

"That impresses upon turkey growers how important fresh water is to the turkeys," Worley said. "One hour without water for a turkey is like one day without water for a human."

Had someone kept score of me cleaning the water holders in the turkey houses, it would be Turkeys 1, Laura 0. I was told turkeys are very curious birds. I don't know that "curious" accurately describes it, I think it's more "invaders of personal space." When I first got to a water holder, they would be about two feet away from me, but every second that I stood there they got closer until many of their faces were about a half-inch away from me. At one point, I decided to go outside and take some notes. As I walked to the door, I noticed the turkeys were following me. As I started walking faster, they started going faster and they were clucking louder and louder the faster they went. It was terrifying. I maintain that I was almost stampeded by a gang of bully turkeys. I have since been told that it's impossible to get stampeded by things that weigh much less than me.

I think that's totally inaccurate -- they weren't there.

When the farmers got outside I told Thomas about my close encounter with the turkey gang.

"My son likes to help sometimes, and that bothers him, too," Thomas said to me.

"Good, that makes me feel better," I said.

"He's 4."

"OK, now I don't feel better."

Cleaning the water holders is only part of the farmers' day. Worley, Thomas and Kelvin Norris, Worley's other son-in-law, harvest crops after tending to the turkey houses in the morning. Before lunch they check the water and food again and then again at night. Raising turkeys has become a family affair at the Worley Farm. Norris and Thomas have also started their own branch called NWT Family Farms, which Worley calls the "next generation."

My day with the Worley family made me appreciate a lot more not only the turkey business, but also about what it takes to run, maintain and pass along, a family farm. For this family, heart is a part of the business -- as are tradition and a sense of responsibility to those who will come along after.

"I'm trying to give them the same opportunity I was given and I hope they give my grandson," Worley said.