MOUNTAIN VIEW COLONY — As soon Joe Wipf opens the gate to the Mountain View Colony turkey yard, a flock of white-feathered, red-faced toms comes marching.
Their wattles waggle as their heads dart from side to side. Black, buckshot eyes glance at Wipf’s empty hands and then to his pockets. No such luck. Wipf fed the birds and is now wading into the large flock to make sure everyone has something fresh to drink.
“Everyone should have fresh water,” Wipf said. “Humans like to have fresh water, right?”
Mountain View Colony raises about 3,000 Thanksgiving turkeys on its farm near Comanche. They start in the late summer with softball-sized poults and feet the birds up to about 15 to 22 pounds, though there are always a few 30-plus pounders for customers who want a really big bird.
Minding the turkeys is no small chore; the animals eat about a ton of food a day. There’s a turkey man and turkey boy to tend to the flock, and occasionally an extra hand like Joe Wipf is called to help.
Wipf is in the rotation today. His son, Tim, who normally looks after the birds, is away on business in Canada.
Wipf is a jack of all trades. Like a lot of elder Hutterite men, he helps wherever needed, which is the colony way. He might pick banquet potatoes in the morning, or help in the egg barn or with the dairy cows.
Everything that’s raised here is sold in town. The milk goes to Meadow Gold in Billings. In fact most of Meadow Gold’s milk comes from Montana’s 52 Hutterite colonies. Mountain View Colony also provides chicken eggs to three Wal-Marts in Billings and Laurel.
Colonies have raised turkeys since migrating to the United States from Canada in the 1940s. Hutterites are Anabaptist, a Christian society that in Europe was persecuted in the 1500s for rejecting baptism at birth, instead opting to baptize until a person’s faith was confessed. Eventually believers emigrated to North America. Colony members pool their resources.
Wipf wears the distinctive dress of his people as he tends to the turkeys: dark trousers and jacket, suspenders and a buttoned shirt. It’s an intentionally modest uniform hand-sewn by the women of the colony.
Hutterites started raising the turkeys for regional sale several years ago after realizing there was a market for fresh, locally raised Thanksgiving birds. But the recent demand wasn’t just for local turkeys; Billings consumers wanted turkeys that were free of hormones, had free range and, yes, had fresh water.
As they adapted to what consumers wanted, the colony went from selling a few hundred birds in the parking lot of Pacific Gallery Antiques, on Broadwater Avenue in Billings, to meeting with organic buyers like Good Earth Market to make sure the birds were raised just right. Mountain View went from selling several hundred turkeys a season to several thousand.
“We have carried their birds for at least nine years, that I know of. They’re our primary turkey guys,” said Perry McNeese, the longtime store manager for Good Earth Market. “It was important to us they had good shelter, but also that they were outside in a big pen. They use a vegetable feed with no antibiotics, no hormones. They meet our sustainability standards.”
It was also important to McNeese that the turkeys were close by. Moving fresh turkeys from farm to table isn’t easy, McNeese said. The birds are just slightly frozen when they arrive at the store for sale. Timing is everything.
Later this week, a team of two dozen Hutterites will begin slaughtering, bleeding and plucking the birds. The average weight of this year’s colony turkeys will be about 18 pounds.
The secret to making the turkeys flavorful, say Hutterites, is soaking them in ice water to lower their body temperature immediately after they’re processed. Though the birds sold in town are slightly frozen for preservation, people who prefer their turkeys freshly chilled, not frozen, can visit the colony and pick one up.