Bird Is The Word

Rob Litch and his uncle John Palmer saw the potential in a poultry farm after John's daughter raised six turkeys in the family's basement as part of a 4-H project

by Julia Lynam

My friends thought I was headed for Wall Street, but I've ended up on Turkey Lane," quips University of Vermont economics graduate Rob Litch. He must have taken the right direction. Standing knee-deep in pink-and-white turkeys in a sunlit field in New Haven, Litch is obviously in his element.

Rob Litch majored in economics at the University of Vermont but passed up the money business for turkey business. When he bought a mobile food stand along with Misty Knoll Farm in New Haven to build name recognition. "I took it to every agricultural fair in Vermont that summer, and that's a lot more than you'd ever want to do," he says.

This is one of several fields belonging to Misty Knoll Farm, the nine-year old partnership between Litch and his uncle John Palmer, a retired IBM field manager.

"The secret of raising free-range turkeys is to be able to move your flocks from field to field," Litch reveals. "We run the them in whatever fields we have available. We do it by eye. It's not a science more of an art."

Misty Knoll will raise and process 21,000 turkeys and about 75,000 chickens this year, but it all started with a small 4-H project run by John's daughter Denise in 1986. "She grew six turkeys in the basement, feeding them on local grain," Litch explains. "They were the best turkeys anyone had tasted, so she grew some more the next year."

Production bloomed over the years. Rather than continuing to give them away to family members, John and Denise began to sell a few. By the time Litch graduated from the University of Vermont in 1992 the "backyard operation" at the Palmers' home in Monkton had grown to 1,500 turkeys and had been state-inspected so he could sell across Vermont.

He had a regular vacation job helping with the turkeys. Palmer, poised to retire from IBM, invited his nephew to join the business "It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," Litch says.

They bought the farm in New Haven specifically to raise turkeys and approached it wholeheartedly. "We bought a mobile food stand to sell turkey burgers, turkey breast cutlets and roasted turkey breast sandwiches," Litch recalls. "To build name recognition I took it to every agricultural fair in Vermont that summer, and that's a lot more than you'd ever want to do.

"At the same time we were building relationships with stores throughout Vermont. We began distributing frozen turkey and became federally inspected, which expanded our market considerably."

Palmer grew up on a poultry farm in New Haven, just a stone's throw away from Misty Knoll. When he bought the farm, he envisioned a rural lifestyle for himself and his family, but also much more.

The work crew gathers after a day on the farm. Misty Knoll has eight full-time employees. That number increases dramatically during the peak pre-Thanksgiving season, when it's a question of "all hands on deck."

"We wanted to produce something that we feel good eating ourselves and could be proud of selling to other people," Litch explains. "From the start we've treated the land and the farm as an irreplaceable resource and tried to be a good community member.

"We've avoided using pesticides or any chemicals on the land since we've had it; the turkeys are all grown free-range with no antibiotics and fed an all-grain diet; and we have our own protected water source."

Because turkey is a seasonal market, a few years ago Misty Knoll started to grow chickens to provide a year-round income base. Being a good community member (In addition to its environmental sensitivity, Misty Knoll donates to the local fire department and church events), enabled the farm to cultivate a relationship with the Chittenden Bank and obtain a loan through its Socially Responsible Banking Fund, Litch says. They used the money to purchase a nearby barn for chicken production.

"I find it quite amazing and even humorous that although nationally in terms of poultry production we are not even a blip on a screen, we are still able to service local restaurants and shops and give something back to the community."

The uncle/nephew partnership has worked well. "We both do whatever's necessary," Litch says. "John likes to avoid the
public stage, but we wouldn't be where we are now without his leadership. People usually see me, because I'm in charge of marketing the turkey and chicken. I'm also the forecaster, which is particularly difficult with turkeys, but we get better at it every year."

Early in the partnership, Litch says he and his uncle split the responsibilities. John is in charge of overseeing production.

"It was and is a lot of hard work," Litch says, "As we've grown, it looks as if the work load has shrunk, but that would be untrue."

The owners extensively researched breeds and now raise mainly the white, pink-headed Nicholas broad-breasted turkeys. They're easier to raise than bronze turkeys, Litch says, and since their large breasts make it difficult for them to fly, it's not necessary to clip their wings. Upper beaks, however, are clipped by the hatchery typically Sleepy Creek Turkeys in South Carolina to prevent them pecking one another.

The chicks arrive in batches throughout the spring and early summer, 100 to a box, mostly hens that will grow to between 12 and 22 pounds. Some toms will grow to between 30 and 35 pounds. They live together in flocks of up to 2,000 birds, first in an open-sided barn bedded deep with kiln-dried wood shavings, then in one of the Misty Knoll fields. High fences with electric top wires keep out predators and wild turkeys which might communicate diseases.

Litch describes Misty Knoll products as "clean and wholesome," but not registered organic. "The difference between ours and an organic turkey, based on the most recent regulations, is that ours are not fed organically raised grain," he explains. "That would increase our feed costs by 40 percent, and I'm not sure that there is a market for that. We have, however, tossed around the idea of producing a small number of organic turkeys in the future."

Andre Palmer rides the tractor with his daughter, Kylie. When John Palmer bought Misty Knoll, he envisioned a rural lifestyle for himself and his family. Soon after setting up the farm, the owners realized they needed to target Vermont's tourist industry and began to approach inns and restaurants.

Because they don't feed the turkeys antibiotics, Litch and Palmer control disease by keeping the birds and their bedding clean, isolating flocks from one another, and protecting them from wild animals. Flocks are checked regularly, and any ailing birds are immediately culled. Fields and barns are scraped clean after the turkeys are removed, and the manure composted. There's talk of turning the compost into a saleable product.

With their neighbors in mind they've mitigated the possible odor from the increasing numbers of turkeys by adding Yucca extract into the birds' diet. It's made a perceptible difference over the past two years, Litch says.

The weather has posed a big challenge. Misty Knoll's worst health disaster occurred when the tail-end of a hurricane hit Vermont in September 1999 with lashing winds and rain. "I was at the Tunbridge World's Fair when John called and said I'd better come home," Litch recalls. "We got everyone to carry the turkeys into the barn, but we still lost a few thousand to pneumonia."

In the converted cow barn that houses Misty Knoll's processing plant, thousands of chickens or turkeys are processed every week and delivered to customers in Vermont and neighboring states, including upscale restaurants in Boston and New York City.

"Soon after we set up we realized that we needed to tap into Vermont's tourist economy," Litch says, "and we began to approach inns and restaurants."

Think succulent roast turkey dinner, barbecued chicken with maple sauce, or slow-roasted poussin with garlic and lemon gravy. That's what Dave Merrill visualizes when he thinks of Misty Knoll poultry. Merrill, executive chef at the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburg, is one of Misty Knoll's most faithful customers. "When I came here from Cape Cod in 1993," he says, "I asked the Vermont Department of Agriculture for information about producers in the state. I combed through the literature and chose some people to buy from. Misty Knoll was an obvious choice because the birds were free range and they were close by. It made good sense, and I've been buying from them ever since.

"They're very good people to work with, and it's a very important part of our operation to support local agriculture."

Buying locally is also important to Jim Blais, meat manager at the Shelburne Supermarket, who's been a Misty Knoll customer for many years. "People know their chicken is fresh," he says. "It's slaughtered two days before we get it. It comes in on a Thursday, and most of it is gone by Saturday."

Blais also carries Misty Knoll frozen chicken and turkey pot pies, which are produced on the farm by cook Minda Lafountain. She prepares them in batches of 1,200 over a three-day period.

Lafountain is one of eight people working full-time on the farm. That number increases dramatically during the peak pre-Thanksgiving season, though, when it's a question of "all hands on deck" as 10 extra staffers are recruited, and all sorts of family members are called in to work. That's when John's wife, Carmen, provides critical help by running the farm's office. Litch's wife, Michelle, is a veterinary technician and, although she's not employed on the farm, her skills sometimes carry over to the operation.

"There's a whole fleet of people who help out at Thanksgiving," Litch says, "and despite the pressure, it's a strangely social time."

Litch says he hears from people all over the Northeast about how good his turkeys are, especially after the holidays. He thinks the taste has something to do with the birds being outside, active and roaming around as close to nature as possible. That makes the texture of the meat firmer and enhances the flavor.

"The testimonials come in regularly," Litch says. "It's very fulfilling to have people call to say how much they've enjoyed our meat."

Originally published in November 2001 Business People-Vermont