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The State Of The Turkey Industry In North Carolina

Leoneda Inge

A lot of Thanksgiving dinners across the country will feature a turkey grown and processed right here in North Carolina.  Butterball is headquartered here and produces about 20-percent of the nation’s turkeys. 

But Butterball reports it’s coming up a little short this year with fresh orders. And in another part of the state, one of the largest turkey slaughter houses is shut down.

It’s hard to find another community in North Carolina that loves turkey more than Raeford.

“Turkey legs! Would you like a turkey leg? They’re one for six, two for ten!” shouted a woman working at the prominent House of Raeford festival tent.

It’s all about turkey and family entertainment at the annual Turkey Festival in Raeford, population around 4,800.  The turkey cooking competition is a favorite.

Donna Barefoot of Benson, North Carolina competed.  She’s won once, and come in last a few times.

"Hoping for a good today, though! And my husband’s here," said Barefoot.  "I’m cooking against him, he’s over there!”

Samuel Barefoot is cooking a turkey pie, using ground turkey. His wife Donna is a little nervous.  They are both finalists.

“Mine is a turkey, string bean casserole with goat cheese and cream cheese with onions on top.  It’s pretty good too, but we tried his pie and it’s awesome.  I got to admit it,” laughed Donna Barefoot.

Just a few blocks from the Turkey Festival is the sprawling House of Raeford turkey slaughter facility.  The family-owned poultry company officially shut down the plant three months ago, to concentrate on chicken production.  The move displaced close to 1,000 workers and affected turkey growing and hatchery operations across eastern North Carolina.  

“It was a surprise.  There had been some rumors in the industry for a while but it was a total surprise that they shut the plant down," said Kim Decker.

Kim Decker has been a Marketing Specialist for the state Agriculture Department for 26 years and has witnessed the struggles of turkey growers.  Today, the price of feed, mainly corn, is a crippling factor.  The price is up because of demand for ethanol.

Decker says companies like Butterball, Prestage Farms and Circle S Farms have picked up some of  House of Raeford’s growers, but not all of them.

“A lot of these growers had older housing and while you could still grow turkeys in them, you might not can grow them as well as you can in a newer house with more ventilation and new feed equipment and those types of things.  And that’s where the growers get caught in a bind," said Decker.

Heritage Turkeys
Credit Jocelyn Romano
Reporter Leoneda Inge visits Lemons Farms in Siler City. Larry Lemons raises Heritage Black Turkeys for Joyce Farms.

It won’t be easy for growers to transition in Hoke and surrounding counties.  And it wasn’t easy for Larry Lemons of Lemons Farms in Siler City.  It was hard to bounce back when large poultry processor Townsends filed for bankruptcy.  But for the last two years, he’s been raising turkeys:  Heritage Black Turkeys. 

This year Lemons raised 1,600 large, black Heritage Turkeys.  They seem to be all the rage in recent years. Last year, he grew only about 500.

He raises the specialty turkeys for Joyce Farms of Winston-Salem, and they quickly sold out last year.

Jocelyn Romano is company veterinarian for Joyce Farms.

“These birds have access to go outside," said Romano, drowned out by a flurry of cackling turkeys.  "To forage and kind of exhibit some of their more natural behaviors, they have plenty of space in here, you wouldn’t know it now, because they really like you.”

Small turkey operations like this one are hoping for an especially good Thanksgiving this year.  Turns out, North Carolina-based Butterball says it will be shipping out half as many large, fresh turkeys this holiday season.  It’s not clear why.

Last year this time, the state was second in turkey production in the U.S., right behind Minnesota.

And while small, specialty, all-natural turkey operations are growing, it doesn’t put a dent in the large numbers of birds coming out of the big houses and the jobs they produce.

House of Raeford was the ninth-largest turkey grower before getting out of the business. The first three slots belong to Butterball, Jennie-O and Cargill.  There is no official word on how the state will fare after all of the changes in 2013.

But what we do know is Donna Barefoot can cook some turkey.

“And the winner of $500, with her southern turkey and bean casserole with love and peace cornbread is Donna Barefoot,” said the festival announcer.

Barefoot says it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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