FREDERICKTOWN – Sitting less than half-a-mile off of Route 13, on Leedy Road – the county line separating Knox and Richland – is a sprawling property with a white sign in the front.
“Broerman Farms,” it reads in painted green letters. “Turkey products direct from our farm to your table.”
This is where north central Ohio’s most dedicated turkey family does business. It’s where Jenifer, Mike and Sarah carry on a tradition their parents started three decades ago. It’s where an estimated 700 turkeys were raised, processed and sold to local customers this Thanksgiving, with another 200 eventually being made into turkey products like smoked breasts or summer sausage.
“It’s just a unique thing, to be able to supply turkeys and to be a part of people's holidays,” said Jenifer Wine, 45, the oldest of the five Broerman children (three of whom currently work on the farm). “It’s kind of interesting. I mean, there really is nowhere else that does local poultry like this.”
Broerman Farms is one of five licensed establishments in the state of Ohio that processes the turkeys it raises, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The family farm, positioned in the rolling hills between Fredericktown and Bellville, contains two turkey barns – one for hatchlings, the other for older turkeys – and a processing facility near the front.
While overseeing the entire process can be taxing, it allows the family to ensure a quality product.
“I know it doesn’t sound like we’re a small-scale operation, but we are a small-scale operation,” said Sarah Hulbert, 36, the youngest of the Broerman children. “And generally, because we have such a tight control over what they’re fed, how they’re fed and how they’re taken care of, it makes a difference in that final product.”
The Broerman family doesn’t just farm turkeys. They own 1,400 acres of crop land in Knox and Richland counties, where they grow corn, soybeans and wheat. The family also operates Broerman Insurance Agency, which provides crop insurance to farmers across Ohio and eastern Indiana.
But to those in north central Ohio – and particularly those who come back to the farm each year on the last week of November – the family is best known for its birds.
The Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving serve as a sort of annual reunion. Customers rumble up the farm’s gravel driveway and are greeted warmly by Broerman family members, who seem to know everyone’s name and story.
They file into the big white barn at the front of the property to buy their holiday turkeys, fresh not frozen, and the Broerman family takes a moment to exhale: these days mark the end of a months-long process that culminates in an exhausting final two weeks.
“I enjoy seeing all the people that you don’t see until this time every year...” Wine said. “But between last week and this week, it’s pretty miserable.”
In fact, by the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around, north central Ohio’s most dedicated turkey family typically prefers another cut of meat.
“We do not eat turkey for Thanksgiving; we rarely eat turkey,” Wine said with a laugh.
“This year we’re having ribs. My husband likes to smoke, so we’re having ribs. It’s just, you really never want to see another turkey until spring.”
The process of raising and processing one’s own turkeys is arduous. But for the Broermans, a family that’s spent the last two decades perfecting the craft, it’s worth it.
From the ground up
Broerman Farms didn’t begin as Knox County’s lone major turkey farm. In fact, when Julius and Chely Broerman first moved to Fredericktown in the 1970s, the family didn’t raise its own turkeys at all.
Julius grew up on a potato farm in St. Mary’s, Ohio. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard for four years, he sold life and health insurance in Mansfield, which is where he met Chely. The two moved to Fredericktown to start a family, and Julius initially farmed grain on Leedy Road. But as the farming depression of the 1980s came to a head, the family was forced to diversify.
“We didn’t have any money or any way to get money,” Hulbert said. “So my father diversified into a bunch of different things as income sources.”
As grain prices plummeted and interest rates for equipment and land skyrocketed, farmers across America struggled to make ends meet. The Broermans were no exception. For Julius, Chely and their five children, that simply meant working harder.
Julius became a bus driver at Clear Fork Local Schools, while Chely made leather saddles. On the farm, the family launched its processing plant, where people from around the area could bring their poultry to be prepared.
“We would do it every Saturday, and it would go from maybe March until October. We didn’t grow our own or anything, we just did custom processing for people,” Wine recalled. “And on Saturday nights, people would get in line at the end of the driveway and the dog would be up all night barking and stuff. We did that for quite a while; I did it my whole high school career.”
Julius also started a crop insurance agency, which was a novel concept at the time.
“My dad had previous history as a life insurance agent and went down to see a local agency in Mount Vernon and said, ‘Hey, I think this is an up-and-coming thing,’” Wine said. In order to obtain loans for equipment and land, farmers needed crop insurance, which would protect against unexpected weather- and market-related costs. Julius realized this and decided he could turn that opportunity into income.
“He was the crop insurance person at that agency for quite a long time,” Wine said.
Julius and Chely passed their work ethic on to their children, who began working on the farm at an early age. Hulbert recalls working in the processing plant at the age of 9, standing on a stool so she could separate poultry giblets (the heart, guts, gizzard and liver) into buckets.
“They had to be cleaned out and prepared for people to eat those,” Hulbert said with a smile. “So that’s what I started doing.”
The Broerman family didn’t have much, but they had enough. Eventually, after the federal government started subsidizing crop insurance in the 1990s, the agricultural industry began to find its way back. Some farmers were able to recover from the recession of the 80s, while others weren’t.
The Broermans survived through their efforts to diversify (a philosophy they maintain today). As crop insurance became a necessity for farmers throughout the midwest, the Broermans’ pioneering agency made a name for itself. It has continued to grow steadily in the decades since.
“We’re one of the largest agencies in the tri-state area now,” Hulbert said.
Only five percent of farmers nationwide had crop insurance when Julius started the agency, Hulbert said, but that number has climbed to 97 percent in the years since. The Broermans capitalized on this trend by getting in the door early, as their history in the business has attracted clients from across the region.
By the early 2000s, the Broermans decided to halt their custom processing business and begin harvesting only their own turkeys. State inspections are rigid for farms processing outside meat, Wine said, so it was easier for the Broermans to make the change.
Now, the farm raises and processes turkeys for hundreds of customers across the state. The establishment on Leedy Road has become Knox County’s lone major turkey farm; Danville used to be home to several major turkey farms, but when local processing plants closed in the 1990s, those began to vanish.
“The market has moved away from it,” said Janet Hawk, whose family owns Skyline Turkey Farm in Danville. The family stopped farming turkeys 20 years ago, she explained, and has since filled their barns with lambs. To her knowledge, the Broermans are the only family left in the county that farms turkeys at such a scale.
The Broerman family has recognized this responsibility and embraced it. As Julius and Chely aged, three of their children moved back home to help run the farm and insurance agency. The siblings' families have become involved as well, and everyone has a role.
“Because it’s a family business, we kind of divide and conquer,” Hulbert said.
Recently, a third generation has begun to take part in the family tradition. Wine’s two oldest children helped carry turkeys to customers’ cars on Tuesday afternoon – not quite as glamorous as sorting giblets, but close enough.
“It’s a great thing for the kids to grow up in…” Wine said. “They didn’t have school today, so they’re working and learning how this goes. My son works here on the farm on a regular basis... It’s definitely an interesting dynamic.”
Quality over quantity
The reason hundreds flock to Broerman Farms each Thanksgiving isn’t because of the price, Hulbert warned. Their turkeys cost twice as much as the ones sold at Wal-Mart or Kroger.
They come for the quality.
“We know that we don’t have the cheapest turkeys on the market. We’re usually double what you can get at Wal-Mart, but we also don’t raise three million birds at a time,” Hulbert said. “We’re a small mom-and-pop and we don’t have any problems showing people what we do, where we do it, how we do it.”
So, here’s how they do it:
When the turkeys – around 1,200 in total – arrive at Broerman Farms each July, they are just one hour old.
They’re shipped from a local hatchery and immediately housed inside the Broermans’ starter barn, a cozy white building next to the administrative office. There, the turkeys are hand-fed and watered for four weeks, while they are particularly susceptible to disease.
Once the turkeys lose their down feathers, they are transported to the big red barn across the property, where they’ll eat and drink from automated feeders for the next several months. The turkeys can’t roam free outdoors on the property, Hulbert explained, due to the number of coyotes in the area, but the environment inside the “finish barn” is spacious and comfortable, well-ventilated and straw-floored.
The turkeys grow 16-17 weeks before being sent to the big white barn for processing. Broerman Farms desires 18-pound turkeys, Hulbert said. This year, nearly 900 were able to be harvested.
The harvesting process is challenging for those who work on the farm. Hulbert and her siblings wake up at 3 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. for three days straight. Afterwards, the turkeys are stored in a temperature-controlled room until purchase day.
While the Broermans' process is time-consuming, it results in a product customers simply can’t find at supermarkets.
“Most of our customers are quality-driven,” Hulbert said. “In the 30 years that we’ve been doing this, we haven’t had anybody tell us that they preferred the taste of a large, commercially grown bird that has been frozen, that they can get at Wal-Mart, to ours.”
There are reasons for that, Hulbert explained. Turkeys sold in supermarkets are often products of large-scale farming operations, spread across several locations, and are simply processed differently.
Supermarket birds are often injected with medications before the processing stage, whereas turkeys from Broerman Farms are only fed grain (they get theirs from Danville Feed & Supply). After processing, supermarket birds are injected with saline solutions and preservatives. They are typically frozen, which causes water molecules to cluster and lessens the flavor of the bird.
After Broerman Farms processes its turkeys, they are stored in a temperature-controlled room to stay fresh in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. They are not injected with preservatives, as doing so adds water weight (causing the turkeys to shrink upon cooking) and detracts from the quality of the product, Hulbert said.
“The biggest difference [between turkeys from the supermarket and turkeys from Broerman Farms] is you know when it was processed and you know how fresh it is, and you know it’s not injected with anything,” Hulbert said. “You know what they’re fed and how they’re fed and how they’re taken care of.”
Much like the family’s crop insurance business, Hulbert said the farm's turkey sales have increased over time. But the growth in sales over the last five years has been particularly sharp; Hulbert estimates the farm has doubled its turkey sales during that time.
She believes the national farm-to-table movement has been the biggest reason why.
“We’re finally to the point where people appreciate our product more,” Hulbert said. “When we had locally grown, natural, not-a-lot-of-stuff-in-it turkeys that were twice as much as Wal-Mart turkeys 20 years ago, people didn’t get it. It’s like, ‘Why am I spending twice as much when it’s a turkey?’
“But now, because of the push for natural products or products that don’t have a lot of preservatives in them, or products where you know what’s happened with it and how it got to your plate, that’s very in right now, so people are more receptive to what we’re offering them.”
This movement has impacted all aspects of the local agricultural industry, according to Kayla Jones, organization director for the Knox County Farm Bureau. Farmers markets have seen an increase in business in recent years due to the fact that people are more interested in organic food, she said.
“Consumers are more interested in knowing exactly where everything came from and being able to talk to the farmer at the time of purchase,” Jones said. “It’s pretty impressive to see that movement happen.”
The Broermans have also seen an increase in turkey sales because of their involvement in the community, Wine said. The siblings – who all attended Clear Fork schools in the 70s and 80s – now have children in school, which has allowed them to meet more people within the community.
“It’s really grown in the last few years, I would say, especially as we are more active in the community through our kids and stuff,” Wine said. “Different people know you.”
Filling a void
Although Thanksgiving week is exhausting for the Broermans, they don’t show it.
They greeted customers with smiles and handshakes on Tuesday, gladly catching up before providing this year’s holiday bird. The family is presumably looking forward to Thursday, when the unsold turkeys are frozen and months of hard work come to an end.
“Don’t talk to my family on Thanksgiving,” Hulbert said, half-joking. “We’re all done with each other. We’re all tired.”
Working every day with family members can be challenging, Wine said, but is ultimately rewarding. It's all about maintaining balance, she said.
“I think we’re pretty good about keeping work, work and private, private,” Wine said.
And the family is proud to serve such a pivotal role on Thanksgiving in north central Ohio. Along with selling turkeys to local customers, the family also donates birds to churches and sells to local markets.
In operating one of the area’s biggest and longest-tenured turkey farms, the family feels obligated to serve the community.
“I feel like we offer a service that nobody else can offer,” Hulbert said, “and we fill a void that nobody else can fill.”
While Julius passed away in 2012 from lung cancer, Chely still lives on the family farm. Now, it’s up to her children and their families to keep the tradition going. They plan to do so, Hulbert said, for as long as possible.
“As long as we can keep doing it and it makes sense to do it, we’ll continue to do it,” she said.