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Utah turkey farmers supply thousands of fresh birds

Published November 28, 2013 11:42 am

Movements favoring locally grown and natural food are a boon for northern Utah turkey farm.
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Weber County • Eight months of feeding 5,000 turkeys and two weeks of almost non-stop killing, plucking and bagging birds culminates in this: the moment at the counter when members of the extended Wight family pass the turkey to a beaming customer.

"Plane still treatin' you right?" Kellie Graham asks Steve Johnson, a friend of her grandfather's who enjoys flying in retirement and wears coveralls and a cap on his visit to Wight's Poultry Farm on Monday.

Johnson presses his fingers into one of the two plastic-wrapped 21-pound turkeys he has come to buy, demonstrating the difference between fresh and frozen.

"You can feel it right there," says Johnson. "They haven't been dead very long."

The retired obstetrician, who lives in South Ogden, delivered all four of the young adults standing behind the counter today: Graham, her sister, Kristina Mack, and cousins Dustin Hess and Lindsey Hess.

Johnson used to buy the biggest bird at Wight's Poultry Farm every year; now he has a "standing order until death" for two fairly big birds.

One, he says, "is for my old nurse." The other is headed with him to Oregon, in a carry-on bag.

Such customers, says Carol Hess, co-owner of Wight's Poultry Farm with her husband, Craig Hess, make all the work of producing all-natural, fresh birds for Utahns' holidays worth it.

"This is the old-fashioned way," says Carol Hess. "Old-fashioned turkey, old-fashioned way."

'There's no comparison' • Carol Hess' grandfather, R.J. Wight, began the family enterprise as Ogden Poultry on Wall Avenue in Ogden in 1948. Her father, Dee, downscaled the business and moved it to the farm just east of the Great Salt Lake in the late 1970s.

Where Ogden Poultry had been huge — producing 750,000 turkeys at its largest — Dee Wight went for the fresh turkey market with Wight's Poultry Farm.

Neither R.J. nor Dee Wight followed the commercial practice of pumping saline solution into the birds.

When Carol and Craig Hess took over the farm in 1996, they went even more natural, eschewing all hormones and antibiotics in the birds' feed.

The birds range in large pens that cover four acres of the farm. The family sells 4,700 turkeys every Thanksgiving and another 300 or 400 at Christmas.

Craig Hess, who cares for the birds from the time they arrive as chicks from Missouri in the spring, feeds them a mixture of grains such as barley, as well as grass and hay.

The turn to all-natural turned out to be fortuitous, as many new customers are seeking food without additives.

"The older I get, the more in tune I am with that," says Terri Bellah, of Kaysville, as she picks up her first Wight's turkey on Monday.

Besides selling from the small shop at the farm, Wight's supplies grocery stores in the Salt Lake Valley.

Companies that give turkeys to employees are big customers; Carol and Craig's son, Dustin Hess, was up at 4 a.m. Monday to deliver 600 turkeys to the Nucor plant in Plymouth. (A sheet-metal worker at Hill Air Force Base, he takes Thanksgiving week off to help his parents.)

Chefs looking to buy local also buy from Wight's.

For instance, employees of a food distributor picked up 55 turkeys Monday for Zane Holm­quist, executive chef at Stein Ericksen Lodge in Park City.

Another chef, Randy Thorsted, picked up five turkeys Monday to bake at Country Pines Retirement Community in Clinton. Thorsted says he's been buying Wight's turkeys "all my life."

Freezing turkey, he says, forces moisture from the meat's cells. "These are fresh. There's no comparison."

'It's a tradition' • Carol Hess laughs at the traditions that have developed around her family's turkeys.

She has two customers who vie, every year, to see who can place the first order and the order for the biggest bird. (It weighed in at 34 pounds this year.)

She begins taking orders by phone on June 1, and all of the birds are typically reserved a week before Thanksgiving Day.

At noon on the day before Thanksgiving, a line of people often awaits the unclaimed birds.

Customers invest a lot of emotion in their Thanksgiving Day turkeys.

Take Susie Spainhower of Eden, who picked up a turkey Friday to bake for an early dinner Sunday and was headed back to Wight's for a second bird before Thanksgiving.

"I've got my baby," she says, stroking the chilled bird. "I have my precious.

"I literally — and this is no lie — have nightmares that I forget to come and get my turkey," Spainhower says. "And I think, 'I can't go to the store and buy a turkey. I can't do that!'"

Bellah's family usually travels to Cody, Wyo., where their family has fresh turkey. This year, the family of six will stay home in Kaysville.

"I can't tell you how excited I am," Bellah says, almost embarrassed. "It's just a turkey, but I want it to be good."

Others are long-time customers, such as Jackie Westergard, of Farr West, who remembers her grandmother getting her turkey from the Wight family.

"It's a tradition. We never have Thanksgiving dinner without a Wight's turkey."

Gail Gibbs grabs hold of Carol Hess' hands when he comes for his turkey. "You're looking good," he tells her.

"You guys are doing OK still?" she asks Gibbs, who lives in Morgan County.

When Gibbs has paid, Carol Hess carries his 21-pound turkey outside and deposits it in the back seat of his pickup truck.

"That," says Gibbs, "is what I call service." —

Talking turkey

Wight's Poultry Farm in Weber County may be the oldest of the family farms supplying Utahns along the Wasatch Front with turkeys for Thanksgiving Day.

But there are others, too.

The Christiansen Family Farm in Vernon sold about 30 all-natural fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving and will have a few more for Christmas. Christian Christiansen meets customers at drop-off points in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Utah Natural Meat in West Jordan had Bourbon Red and Broad-Breasted turkeys for Thanksgiving at its farm outlet in West Jordan.






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