RYEGATE — Hundreds of white turkeys, with pale pink heads and beady black eyes, crowded together in the semi-darkness of Paul Hofer's turkey barn at the Golden Valley Hutterite Colony in October.
When Hofer opened the barn door, they squawked and shuffled, moving en masse toward the light that poured in from the opening. Hofer watched them and beamed.
"This is the best set of turkeys I've raised," he said.
This year, he's raised 2,500 of them. In the next few days the turkeys will be processed and packaged, ready to be sold for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals throughout Montana and northern Wyoming.
Hofer's 2,500 birds is a small number by commercial standards. The big turkey farms like Norbest, Butterball and Foster Farms raise tens of thousands of birds per set. The Hutterite operation at Golden Valley keeps it relatively small, which helps the operation stay manageable for Hofer.
This is the 16th set he's raised, and he couldn't be happier with what he sees. Half have been raised traditionally, kept close to feeders in a dimly lit barn — constant bright light agitates the birds. The other half are free-range. They're kept in a barn that's open to a large outdoor pen, allowing the turkeys to move around a little more freely.
It's a big operation for the colony, one of its most important money-makers after harvest season. And it's competitive. Golden Valley is one of a dozen or so colonies in the region that sell turkeys for the holidays. And all of the colonies are set on out-selling their neighbors, Hofer said.
And so nearly everyone at the colony pitches in, he said. Once the turkeys are ready for harvest, they're taken to a room and slaughtered, where the colony women process the birds, cleaning out their organs and preparing them for packaging by the colony men.
The packaging is important.
"That's what sells a turkey," Hofer said.
They make sure the packaging is clean when it goes out the door and that the bird is clearly marked and labeled. They also ensure the packaging is securely sealed. Hutterite turkeys are sold fresh, not frozen. So a properly sealed bird is vital to keeping it fresh long enough to be prepared for the holiday meal, Hofer said.
Hofer uses no hormones or other supplements to grow his turkeys. They're raised on feed and water and come out as close to natural as Hofer can make it, he said.
That's important to shoppers at Mary's Health Food in Billings, which sells a variety of Hutterite turkeys.
"People always buy them from us," said Rebecca Coley at Mary's. "There's definitely demand."
Coley said the store buys from a handful of Hutterite colonies. She keeps them in stock around the holidays because it's something costumers ask for and continually buy. The store sells whole Hutterite chickens year round.
Hofer said health stores and shops that specialize in natural and organic foods have been a good venue for his turkeys. They do brisk business.
"They're good turkeys," he said, smiling.