REISTERSTOWN – Tom Reynolds can’t compete with big turkey farms. His R&L Hay & Straw has to charge three times as much for one of its birds, relying largely on volunteer labor to help slaughter and dress turkeys, a job that is, well, nasty.
But Reynolds is a happy man these days.
“If we can just get you to eat one, you’ll be back,” said Reynolds of the farm-fresh turkeys he and his partner, Kendall Lemmon, have been selling from their Baltimore County farm for six years. “Once you eat it, you’re hooked.”
R&L is one of seven direct-to-consumer turkey sellers in Maryland, according to the state Department of Agriculture. This is the peak time of year for the farms, which have been busy filling orders from people who want a Thanksgiving turkey that has not been frozen.
For R&L, that means organizing a turkey harvest with mostly volunteer labor that must proceed with mechanical efficiency to meet the short window of demand.
On Saturday, the volunteers stood in a barn in assembly-line fashion, covered in plastic, killing turkeys in one room and dressing them in another before icing them down at a rate of about 200 turkeys per hour. It’s loud, cramped and smelly in the room where the turkeys hang, and the men who showed up Saturday, for what has become an annual event, spent more than seven hours at it.
But while it is a messy and unsavory job, the volunteers come back every year to help Reynolds and Lemmon fill orders. For their efforts, they get a free turkey, a sweatshirt and lunch — and some neighborly spirit.
“I’ve been killing turkeys here for years,” said neighbor and fellow farmer Neil Klingelhofer. “It’s a pleasure to come over here because they seem to be doing everything right.”
Klingelhofer, who owns nearby Liberty Farms, said farmers today have “got to be diversified,” particularly in land-scarce states like Maryland. The 79- year-old, who said he began working on the farm when he was 10, has seen the landscape for farming in Maryland change since he took over his family farm.
“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
That strategy seems to be working for R&L: It sells turkeys for the holidays and vegetables in the summer and fall, and is doing well financiallly, said Reynolds’ wife, Joan. “We grow a little bit of everything,” she said.
Tom Reynolds said he started the turkey part of the business in Baltimore County about six years ago, when he sold fewer than 300 birds. This year, R&L took orders for about 1,500 turkeys for Thanksgiving alone, with more expected for Christmas.
He says there is just no comparison between the frozen turkeys most people eat and his farm-fresh turkeys, which he says are more flavorful and moist.
“Would you eat a sandwich out of the fridge after 45 days?” he asked.
While Reynolds claims no comparison in taste, there is definitely no comparison in price. Supermarkets sell turkeys for 49 cents per pound or less at this time of year, while Reynolds must sell his turkeys for $1.49 per pound.
“They can put that product out a lot cheaper than we can,” he concedes.
But he doesn’t seemed too worried. Reynolds said the business has been getting many walk-in customers who want to place Thanksgiving orders.
“Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said.
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