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Give the gift of a great gobbler

After 81-years in the business, Bill Bates can pretty much talk turkey. And with 25,000 turkeys on his farm, that's a blessing.

"We're the only free-range turkey farm in the country," he said. "That means we keep them out doors, fenced into flocks of 4,000 turkeys. We only raise them in a 'house' until their about eight weeks old but then we turn them lose into the pasture."

Situated a little more than 10 miles north of the Lowndes County line, Bates' 360 acres farm has been in the family since 1868.

"The turkeys only take up about 80 acres though," he said. "My son uses some of the land for cows he's raising. The cow and turkey industries work well together."

Free-range means the turkeys eat mainly grass and stay healthy enough to not need medication.

"We don't inject anything into our turkeys and we only use corn oil in our feed, not animal fat," Bates said. "That makes our turkeys totally natural and keeps the diseases down. I've always been against animal fat."

"We're about as big as we can be," he said. "Much bigger and we'd have to use medication."

Busy Season

So who buys 25,000 turkeys? Companies, Bates said.

"We sell most of our turkey's to businesses who give them to their employees for the holidays," he said.

With the textile factories gone, Bates had to find new companies to sell to.

"We're looking to see if we can sell to hospitals," he said. "The thing today though is that a company that was always a customer will get bought up by another big company. The holiday turkey is one of the first things they cut out."

So Bates is trying to sell his turkeys straight to the consumer.

"We sell a few to grocery stores in the bigger cities around here. We use to sell to 150 stores but now we just sell to a few. We try to pick the best gourmet grocery store in a town."

Bates says his turkeys can be found at a grocery store on Mulberry Street in Montgomery, two stores in Birmingham and one in Mobile.

"We don't take them much further than that because then you have to keep the driver over night," he said. "But if someone wants one further away we can ship it."

Cyber-turkey

Bates' farm finally entered the technology age last month with its first website with online ordering.

"Our first attempt at using a computer was a failure," Bates said. "The fellow we bought it from left the company and no one knew how to get the information off of it. So we threw it away and went back to paper. We just added some new ones and I still don't know how to send Email."

Bates' said his system has been completely automated in that someone can place an order, the computer will print the label and all we have to do is put the label on the box and give it to the post office."

All Bates' turkeys get shipped second-day air in specially designed Styrofoam coolers that keep the turkey fresh for a week.

"I was leery of it at first but every morning we're getting eight to 10 orders from all over the country," he said. "Selling to companies is nice but there's more profit in selling cooked turkeys to consumers."

The house that turkey built

Though Bates used to own two restaurants, Greenville has the only one left.

"We closed down the one in Montgomery," he said. "It was just too much trouble. We run the restaurant ourselves we train people to cook our way."

On average, Bates said the restaurant uses six 30-pound turkeys a day during the dinner rush.

"We also have everything available at the restaurant in the Texaco station," he said.

Randy Sloane, manager of Bates Texaco, said lunch is their busiest time of the day.

"Our biggest selling item is probably the hickory-smoked turkey sandwich," Sloane said. "We don't do the complete meal like the restaurant. We do offer the turkey and turkey parts for people to take home."

Full-time job

The turkeys Bates sells for the holidays start in a hatchery in Ohio and are shipped down in June.

"We use to hatch our own up until about 10 years ago," Bates said. "But it just got to be too much trouble so now we buy them from a hatchery up north. They hatch 28 million turkeys a year and can turn a profit off of it. We just don't do that kind of volume."

Once the turkeys are old enough, it's off to Bates' processing factory. After they're killed and cleaned, Bates smokes the turkeys for eight hours in a hickory smoker.

"The wood for the smokers is also grown right here on the farm," Bates said. "These days, we ship it up to Montgomery to have it chipped but I use to have a fellow who'd cut it for us.

Once processed, the turkeys are cut or prepared to meet orders and boxed up for shipping.

"We can process about 800 a day," he said. "We're usually done processing them by the second week of December."

Bates said that on average they keep 480,000 pounds of processed turkey on hand ready for shipping.

After all the turkeys are ready for sale, it's time to repair the farm.

"We don't have time to make repairs when we have the turkeys," he said. "So we spend the rest of the year fixing fences and cleaning up. This year it's going to be especially hard since the hurricane came through. It will probably take use until next summer to get all cleaned up."

Hurricane Ivan left the farm shorts a few trees and damaged some roves, but the biggest loss was nearly 400 turkeys killed from hypothermia.

"They were only eight-weeks old and we could have left them in the turkey house for a few more days," he said. "But at least it wasn't more than that."

Year-round the farm employs 14 people, but during the holidays they step up to more than 36 jobs.

Got turkey?

When Bates' Turkey Farm started out, there were 91 turkey farms in Alabama. Now Bates is the only one left.

"I've been in the National Turkey Federation for 51 years and on the board for quite a few," he said. "I even tried to retire last year but they wouldn't let me."

In 1949, Bates came up with the idea of offering a turkey to the governor for pardoning as a way to promote the poultry industry.

And Clyde was born.

"I called him Clyde after a friend of mine I use to fish with," he said. "My friend always thought it was funny."

"Big" Jim Folsom became the first governor to pardon a turkey from the Thanksgiving table in 1949. Since then it's become a tradition in Alabama with Clyde visiting the governor at his mansion in Montgomery. Occasionally Clyde is joined by a hen named Henrietta. The pair and Bates meet the governor and some local kindergartners for the ceremony done all in fun.

"Clyde's about four weeks older than the other turkeys," he said. "We're probably not going to do a hen this year though."

Bates said it's not much trouble to put Clyde in a pen and haul him up to the mansion. After the pardoning, Clyde enjoys an easy life either on the farm or out at the farm's booth at the Farmers Market in Montgomery.

"We added that booth a few years ago and it's become quite popular," Bates said. "Last year's Clyde and Henrietta were out there until Clyde died during Hurricane Ivan. In the past, we have given them to boys ranges or just kept them ourselves."

Bates said they don't usually live past two years. The turkey continues to put on weight until they just can't support themselves.

"The largest one we've ever had was 78 pounds," Bates said. "He was two years old and died of heart failure."

This year's Clyde is 19 weeks old and should weigh just over 30 pounds.

All in the family

Bates grew up in the turkey business. The turkey farm started when his great aunt, Mamie Bates, gave his father nine turkey eggs as a wedding gift. Bill Bates was born in a house that still stands on the farm. Eighty-one years later and his grandchildren are working for him.

"Originally I called the farm Cloverhill," Bates said. "But a friend of mine, J.G. Stanley, owner of The Greenville Advocate, suggested I change it to something people could remember. He suggested Bates Turkey Farm. So that's what it became."

Bates turkeys use to be the usual black-feathered variety that everyone knows but he changed to the white-featured fowls to make processing easier.

"In 1965 we changed to white turkeys," he said. "Dark-featured turkeys have a dye in their feathers that has to be taken out. White-feathered turkeys don't have that dye. So we bred the black-feathered turkeys out."

Bates said he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. He stays on top of his health, he said, though he's slowed down some.

He said he plans to continue raising turkeys and promoting the industry for many years to come.

Bates Turkey Farm's new website is www. batesturkey.com.

Orders can be placed via Email at sales@batesturkeyfarm.com .