Just like other Americans who gather around the table at Thanksgiving, Walt Johnson’s family looks forward to carving into a perfectly roasted, juicy turkey, the centerpiece of this holiday celebration. The day highlights the importance of being with family and tradition but for Walt it also signals the end of the busiest season on his Clinton County farm, one spent raising more than 500 turkeys for longtime customers, friends, neighbors and community, a process that is as much tradition as the meal itself.
Johnson established his southwest Ohio farm less than 20 years ago. He began with 15 acres and added another 100 in 2000. Eighty acres is tillable land for corn, soybeans and hay, a hefty portion is woodland, and five is dedicated as pasture for raising turkeys.
In early summer, Johnson travels to a northeast Ohio hatchery to pick up newly hatched turkeys called “poults” that will be sold months later. He raises one type of turkey—Broad Breasted Whites, a domesticated bird bred to have large breast muscle and yield more white meat. For the first few weeks, the poults will live in a sheltered environment. Once they are fully feathered they will be moved out on pasture. “At this point, they are free range,” he said, “able to move about to forage for grass and bugs.”
Broad Breasted Whites are the only breed raised on Johnson Farms. “It’s more economical to raise than heritage varieties,” Johnson said of the breeds raised hundreds of years ago. “There’s a limited market for those types and they don’t get very big,” he added. “When people have a lot of guests for Thanksgiving, they want a bigger bird. Our customers tell us that the flavor of our turkeys is intense, more natural and moist.” He credits the praise to their environment and growing conditions.
“They might not put on weight quickly but they are gaining flavor instead,” Johnson said. He markets his birds as “all natural” and also grows and formulates the feed for the flock. “We provide the corn, soy, minerals and vitamins that they need to reach the proper weight for processing, between 12 and 25 pounds,” he said.
Johnson’s grandfather raised poultry in the 1920s near Cincinnati and his father did the same, turning the business over to him in the 1970s. The location of the farm has changed, and he built a new state inspected processing plant for his own needs and those of neighboring farmers and 4-H exhibitors at the fairs. “What hasn’t changed is that I raise poultry the same way my grandfather and father did,” he said. “Naturally.” It’s a family affair, one where his children have taken on important responsibilities. Sarah, a junior at Ohio State University majoring in veterinary medicine, does the bookkeeping, scheduling and takes orders, and Zach, a high school senior helps with the care and management of the farm.
“Some of the customers are the next generations of my grandfather’s and dad’s customers,” Johnson said. One of the most gratifying parts of raising turkeys isn’t necessarily the day when the last bird is processed, but that they continue to provide something that sustains traditions at many family Thanksgiving tables.
A future in farming
Family farming is not only in their blood but their future. Zach and Sarah Johnson, farm kids from birth, nurtured their love of the land and animals by living on the farm and being involved in 4-H, the 100-year-old youth development organization. Both brother and sister have consistently been in the spotlight at county and state fairs.
Zach, 17, once thought that his future in farming was in the fields. “It was when I started showing livestock and poultry at the Ohio State Fair that I changed my mind,” he said. He explained that a lot of work goes into showing animals and it all comes together in the show ring.
“In order to be competitive, you can’t just go through the motions,” he said. “You have to have goals.” In 2011, Zach’s turkey was in the Ohio State Fair’s Sale of Champions and this past fair he was distinguished as the second overall outstanding market exhibitor for poultry. On track for graduating high school next year, he is considering studies in animal nutrition.
Sarah, 19, spent 14 years in 4-H where her turkeys won ribbons as champion and reserve champion. She’s finished her last year with the program but she’ll help her brother through the rest of his 4-H days and possibly return as an adviser.
“The best thing I’ve learned through 4-H is not just how to deal with animals, but how to deal with people,” she said. “Participating in the fair creates lots of bonds and relationships and lots of opportunities to learn from others.”
If you want to invite one of the Johnson Farms’ turkeys to Thanksgiving this year, you can order online at localharvest.org or by calling Johnson Farms directly at 937-685-2052. Pickup of freshly processed turkey is on the farm at 3936 Farmers Road, Wilmington, from Sunday, Nov. 24 through the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.