June 15, 2024

Family ends longtime turkey operation

Robert Kauffman holds a box with one of his turkeys in front of the case of products for sale at the farm’s store. In addition to the store, HO-KA turkeys and products are sold mainly in the Chicagoland area to butchers, independent grocers and small chains.

WATERMAN, Ill. — The Kauffman family has been raising and selling turkeys for 90 years, but the family started the farming operation many years prior to that near Waterman.

“We’ve had turkeys since 1933, but this has been the family farm since my great-grandfather came here when he mustered out after the Civil War in the late 1800s,” said Robert Kauffman, owner of Kauffman Turkey Farms. “This is the original 120-acre tract with the original farmhouse.”

Kauffman’s dad received a full scholastic scholarship to attend the University of Illinois, where he studied agriculture and graduated with honors.

“They wanted him to stay and become a professor, but he said he was going home to farm,” Kauffman said.

While in college, W. Howard Kauffman wrote a paper about the possibility of making money raising turkeys.

“He started his first flock in 1933 with 300 birds, and at that time, it wasn’t uncommon to lose half the flock,” Kauffman said. “I think turkeys are one of the more difficult farm animals to raise, but they make money.”

The Kauffmans dressed the turkeys at their farm.

“I think they dressed them in the basement of the house and then he would put the turkeys in the back of a Model T and drive into the city,” Kauffman said. “I’m assuming he went to Fulton Street, and he would tell me if he got a good price, he would buy a bottle of whiskey and a bag of cream drops.”

The turkey farm continued to grow in size and incorporated during the 1940s.

“He was well on his way to being as big as Tyson, but then they had a patch of really bad luck in the late ‘60s with low prices and disease,” Kauffman said.

“Also, he had farmed here for so long the corn had drawn the selenium out of the soil, so there was no selenium in the feed ration and the turkeys started dying,” he said. “He wanted to add selenium to the ration, but he was not allowed to because somebody thought it was a carcinogen, but years later they allowed selenium and apologized.”

HO-KA Turkey Farms worked with area farmers to raise some of the turkeys.

“When I grew up, my father was extremely successful and at one point he had a quarter of a million turkeys,” Kauffman said. “He owned 20 acres by Route 23 and it was a two-day haul to walk them back to the farm for processing.”

At that time, the turkeys were Bronze with black feathers.

“Bronze was considered the good eating turkey and then the breeders produced a turkey that was white which was a mutation,” Kauffman said. “They started breeding that turkey until they got them all white and they made sure the flesh was white with no blemishes.”

“I also think that helped with the heat in the summer, but it was more about the appearance of the flesh,” he said. “So, the turkeys’ underlying genetics is Bronze.”

A lot of people were breeding turkeys and W. Howard Kauffman was getting turkeys from California until that farm went bankrupt. In the 1960s, he started a breeding operation and hired a farm manager to do that work.

The breeding operation was located two miles from the home farm.

“We had hens and studs, and when you milked a tom, you had to use the semen immediately,” Kauffman said. “I understand they can store it longer now.”

After raising and selling turkeys from the DeKalb County farm for nine decades, the Kauffman family has decided to retire from the turkey business. Howard Kauffman started with a flock of 300 birds after returning to the family farm following his graduation from the University of Illinois.

Robert Kauffman also studied at the U of I, initially in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I took an ag econ class and I loved it, so I transferred to the College of Ag and decided I really liked working on the turkey farm.”

In 1978, W. Howard Kauffman died while cruising on the Queen Elizabeth.

“After I graduated from college, I came back to the farm in 1982,” Kauffman said. “The ‘80s were the golden era for poultry — prices went up because everybody wanted to eat healthy.”

The turkey poults arrive at the Waterman farm when they are one day old.

“They are shipped by trucks that are very expensive pieces of equipment because they must have continuous air movement, they must keep the oxygen levels up and they have to be warm or cool,” Kauffman said. “They get the turkeys here as fast as they can and everything has to be ready — buildings clean, prepped and warm.”

When the poults arrive, the farmer must do everything a mother hen would do.

“We keep the house at 85 degrees and under the brooder stove it could be up to 105 degrees,” Kauffman said. “A ring is placed around it and they stay inside the ring for a week and then we take the rings out and the turkeys get the whole house.”

At five weeks of age, the turkeys are ready for range.

“That can either be going outside to a wheat field that we’ve harvested or moved to a building,” Kauffman said.

“It is more stressful outside because of weather and predators,” the farmer said.

“Turkeys have excellent eyesight so they can see birds or planes flying over and they have a warning call sound that they make,” he said. “Then they all huddle together and that can be stressful.”

The turkeys can also be visited by coyotes, hawks and owls.

“I don’t worry about hawks and owls too much because they’ll take a bird,” Kauffman said. “Coyotes are problematic because a female will bring the cubs with her to the flock and teach them to kill, so I’ve lost as many as 200 turkeys in a night.”

The turkeys are grown to 10 pounds and up and then dressed in a federally inspected plant on the farm.

“Some people want 30-pound turkeys so we make sure we’ve got a few of those and the biggest turkey we sold was 50 pounds,” Kauffman said. “I really like the 18-pound hens.”

In addition to the store located on the farm, HO-KA turkeys and products are sold mainly in the Chicagoland area to butchers, independent grocers and small chains, including Sunset Foods.

“My father established a relationship with Sunset Foods in 1937, when they had three stores and now they have five stores,” Kauffman said. “They have a store in Highland Park and turkey is very popular in the Jewish community.”

In addition to whole turkeys, the farm sells many other products, including breasts, thighs, wings, drumsticks, bratwurst, breakfast sausage, Cajun sausage, chorizo sausage and breast meat pie.

“We bought a grinder in the ‘80s to make ground turkey because we couldn’t move thighs,” Kauffman said. “Boy, did the ground turkey sell and we’ve put thousands of tons through that grinder.”

In recent years the family farm has been raising about 60,000 turkeys annually, but that ended this year when Kauffman made the decision to retire from the turkey business.

“It’s getting harder to do this and probably the deciding factor was I couldn’t get liability insurance,” he said. “My father dressed turkeys until he passed and I didn’t want to do that.”

Not having any turkeys on the farm this year after nine decades has been really interesting, Kauffman said.

“But it has been nice to not have to plant crops or worry about the weather,” he said.

Although there are no fresh turkeys available for sale, Kauffman is selling his remaining stock of frozen products.

“We are hoping to be sold out of everything just before Thanksgiving,” he said.

An auction will be held Dec. 1-2 at the family farm to sell farm equipment on the first day and the turkey processing equipment the following day.

For more information about Kauffman Turkey Farms, go to www.hokaturkeys.com, or call 815-264-3470.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor