2011 and Earlier / Special Interests

Talkin' turkey with farmer Brown

If you were hoping to get one of the turkeys Ben Brown raised this year on the former Sonny Swanson farm in Cleveland Township for Thanksgiving, you’re at least a month too late.

“I pre-sold them all well in advance,” said Brown, who is working part of the 93-acre Sonny Swanson preserve that the Leelanau Conservancy holds. He has a two-year lease on the 17-acre parcel and plans to purchase the property after the lease is up.
BEN BROWN successfully raised 35 turkeys this year on 17 acres of the former Sonny Swanson farm in Cleveland Township. Brown is planning on raising 100 turkeys and 1,000 chickens next year on the farm.BEN BROWN successfully raised 35 turkeys this year on 17 acres of the former Sonny Swanson farm in Cleveland Township. Brown is planning on raising 100 turkeys and 1,000 chickens next year on the farm.
In addition to raising the 35 turkeys, Brown raised, sold and processed some 600 chickens over the spring, summer and fall, all while planting a cover crop of rye on some of the fields between the familiar yellow farm house and the turkey pen.

“Most of my chicken customers bought one of my turkeys before most people knew about them,” he said.

Brown didn’t have to do any advertising, as the turkeys did most of the ad work themselves.

“They did their own marketing by walking along the field by M-22, everyone sees them as they drive by,” he said.

Browns started with 47 birds and lost 12 through trial and error.

“I had some issues in the brooding stage,” he said. “The first eight weeks, for whatever reason I’d lose a turkey to accidents. I had a few trample each other.”

The 35 that made it through were strong, health jennys or toms. Brown said he was shooting for an average weight of 18 pounds.

“My birds ranged in size from 15-20 pounds,” said Brown, who charges $4.15 a pound for each bird. “I’m able to charge a premium.

“I’m not about sheer volume, I want to put out a quality product.”

Brown said compared to the frozen birds most people will be eating today, his turkeys will be whole, fresh and oven ready.

When one thinks of farming in Leelanau County, poultry may not be the first product or animal that comes to mind. Why did Brown choose chickens and turkeys?

“It’s a business that is profitable early on,” he said. Plus he had experience in raising chickens. “You don’t need an expensive infrastructure or a whole lot of capital to start.”

Being an experienced poultry raiser, Brown knew to keep the chickens and turkey separate. “There is a certain parasite that crosses over, just from chickens to turkeys, but not the other way,” he said.

Turkeys also have what Brown called a bully, mob mentality. The biggest bird in the flock, a white Tom, is missing his right eye. Brown said he believes the eye was pecked out. “He does get pecked at and picked on,” he said. “I see them picking on each other to the point where they draw blood, but that’s pretty rare.”

He used most of the land closest to the farmhouse to raise the turkeys. Using a portable electric netting fence, Brown moved the turkeys all around the property. They lived off the grass and insects they could find, as well as the daily feed mixture of corn, soy, oats, fishmeal, kelp, some minerals and some probiotics. “During the summer I usually didn’t feed them more than once a day because there was plenty for them to eat,” he said. With the cold weather, and Thanksgiving approaching, Brown has been feeding them twice a day.

While he likes chickens, Brown said he enjoys being around the turkeys a little more. He said turkeys are very vocal and communicative.

“They make so many different noises, it’s amazing,” he said. Brown said based on his observations being around the turkeys he thinks they make up to 20 different noises. “They’re trying to tell each other something, I just don’t know what it is.”

The turkeys know Brown. At the sight of his familiar walk and brown coat, the birds flock to where ever he stands by the fence. He keeps the fence electrified by a solar-powered charging system that has two 12-volt batteries capable of sending a 6,000 volt jolt through the fence. During the summer the two 12-volt batteries are more than sufficient to keep the turkeys in and predators out. This time of year, with the cold draining batteries quicker and less sunlight, Brown has added a car battery to the system.
“I rotate car batteries to supplement the fence,” he said.

Next spring Brown will start the process all over again. He plans to raise 1,000 chickens in a rotating system.

“I’ll start bringing the chickens in mid to late April,” he said. “At any one time I’ll have 500-600 birds here.” Brown said he won’t have any problems selling the chickens. “That is about as many as I can do on my own. If I get more than 1,000, I’d have to have some help,” he said.

As for turkeys, he plans to raise 100 next year.

But, with the processing done and his winter quarters near-by secured, Brown will be taking one of the fresh, oven ready birds home with to Illinois this week. Which one will he choose?

“Probably the big white one,” he said.

By Chris Olson
Of The Enterprise staff

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