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When business is for the birds, small farms strive to survive despite industry pecking order

How do small farms, competing against factory farms, gobble up their share of business? The family-run Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Connecticut relies on Thanksgiving sales for nearly half of their yearly income, selling high-quality birds raised in a free-range environment. Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at how small businesses struggle in an economy dominated by big business.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The star of many, if not most, holiday tables tomorrow will be the Thanksgiving turkey, which must be farmed, marketed and sold in time for the big day.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman visited a family farm for a look at how one small business is trying to keep up.

    It’s part of Paul’s ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In Eastern Connecticut, 3,000 or so free-range antibiotic-free turkeys, a tiny slice of the quarter-of-a-billion birds raised in America this year, almost all on factory farms.

    But how does a humane family farm stay solvent, when four out of every five turkeys it grows are sold just one week a year? And how does a family farm stay in the turkey business anyway these days, given that except for a few gamey heritage birds, Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm raises the same fair-feathered fowl, bred for their white meat breasts, that are massed-produced.

    The Butterball company alone will put 10 million of them on our plates this week at supermarket prices Ekonk Hill’s Rick Hermonot can’t hope to match.

  • RICK HERMONOT, Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm:

    These birds, they’re getting lots of exercise running around.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    They’re burning calories.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Burning…

    (TURKEYS GOBBLING)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Sorry, guys, I didn’t mean…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    They’re burning calories, and — but it takes more feed to get a pound of meat. We can’t sell them for what a supermarket would want to pay us for them.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So how to understand Ekonk economics? Well, first, they can charge higher prices, $4.49 a pound, so long as they provide higher quality.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    The exercise, the fresh air, the health of the birds. They’re eating leftover pumpkins we’re throwing out here for them.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Oh, yes.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    They’re eating the grass. They’re eating bugs. That diet creates a much, much better-tasting product.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And so, says Hermonot, does the low-stress, humane way he raises his turkeys, touchy birds who can actually die of fright.

    By contrast, charges People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, factory farm turkeys, even those boasting a humane label, are — quote — “warehoused in dark, crowded sheds. Their eyes and lungs burn from the stench of ammonia. They have parts of their beaks seared off with a hot wire.”

    They even meet their maker differently, says Hermonot.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    The big processors are loading them into crates and trucking them down the road at 75 miles per hour. There’s a lot of stress on those birds. Our birds don’t go through that, because they’re processed right here on the farm.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Processed is a euphemism for slaughtered, right?

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Right. Right. But because we’re the ones who raise them, these have been treated with TLC right up until the day they’re processed, and they don’t go through any stress.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And though experts, and even consumers, may disagree that free-range tastes better than factory farmed, Hermonot insists:

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    There’s been studies shown that when animals are stressed before slaughter, the adrenaline that’s released into their body affects the taste of their meat.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Now, it’s not as if Hermonot is recommending liberty and justice for all turkeys.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    We’re creating what we consider to be a really special product, but I am aware that we need modern agriculture to feed the population on this planet right now.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And to maintain an operation like this, Hermonot, like so many farmers, needs a regular job. He’s a farm credit consultant. Ekonk Hill has pursued another business strategy as well: diversification into new revenue streams.

    A farm store, run by Rick’s wife, Elena, and their kids — this is daughter Katie — provides 30 to 40 percent of the farm’s income, half of that from homemade ice cream, the other half from baked goods, produce, and, of course, turkey spinoffs.

  • WOMAN:

    These are the homemade turkey pies we make at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Not to mention the hot gobbler sundae, mashed potatoes and turkey, graced with gravy, a sprinkle of stuffing, and a dollop of cranberry sauce on top.

    A final bit diversification, autumn agritourism, with petting zoo, hayrides and an amazing attraction, three-and-a-half miles of maze made of maize.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    You can be lost in here for hours.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Really. Even you?

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Even me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Animals, rides and voluntary disorientation, all for $10 if you’re over 10, $6 for the younger ones, free for kids under 5.

    What percentage of your income does the corn maze represent?

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    About 10 percent.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And the turkeys?

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Turkeys are almost 50 percent.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Fifty percent in just one insane week of the year. The limits of a seasonal business have opened a split in economic philosophy down on the farm.

  • ELENA HERMONOT, Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm:

    I’m working 80 to 100 hours a week right now. I can’t do anymore.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Push, push, push. We have got to get bigger. We have got to grow more turkeys.

  • ELENA HERMONOT:

    Bigger is not always better. If you can handle what you’re doing, why get bigger?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Well, the standard answer is because you will make more money.

  • ELENA HERMONOT:

    Money isn’t everything.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    Property taxes go up, price of feed goes up, the price of everything goes up. We can’t keep raising the price of the turkey to cover all of that. Some of it, we have to raise more birds to cover those higher costs.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    On the other hand, says his wife:

  • ELENA HERMONOT:

    You have more bills, more headaches, more everything. Get bigger, you pay more taxes too.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But for her husband, there’s something more basic than the bottom line at work here as well.

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    I think it’s fun to take on new challenges and try to develop new markets and do something new this year that we didn’t do last year. I’m not as content with the same-old, same-old.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    As we gabbed ‘midst the gobblers, two toms squared off for pride of place in the pecking order. Given the Hermonot family feud of sorts, it prompted one final, politically incorrect question.

    Any analogy to turkeys, the toms vs. the hens?

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    I think there probably is.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • RICK HERMONOT:

    We’re all — all not that much different from each other, when you get right down to it.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Well, maybe, but we never got a chance to ask Elena Hermonot for her take on the analogy between turkeys and humans. She was too busy running the business.

    Paul Solman reporting for “The PBS”….

    (TURKEYS GOBBLING)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Paul Solman reporting for the “PBS NewsHour” from the Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, Connecticut.

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