Turkey Capital of Kentucky

This is the con­clu­sion of Gobble! Gobble! Turkey farm­ing in Clark County. If you haven’t read the first part, you may want to do that before proceeding. 

“When Perry Browning switched enter­pris­es back in the late 1930s, he had no way of know­ing then that he was giv­ing Thanksgiving one of the great­est assists since the Pilgrim Fathers start­ed the whole busi­ness 340 or so years earlier.” 

This quote came from Joe Creason in the November 22, 1959 issue of the Courier-Journal.  Creason fol­lowed with anoth­er shoutout to Browning.  “He found­ed a busi­ness that is a giant in the indus­try, one of the largest inte­grat­ed turkey oper­a­tions in the entire world.”

Browning’s “inte­grat­ed oper­a­tion” involved every step in pro­duc­ing turkeys—egg lay­ing, hatch­ing, rais­ing the poults to matu­ri­ty, then slaugh­ter­ing, freez­ing and pack­ag­ing them for market—on 2,194 acres of his land in Clark County and Winchester.  Since he couldn’t pro­duce near­ly enough eggs to hatch, he had to buy them from 65 oth­er farms all over Kentucky.

His hatch­ery was the largest in the world, turn­ing out 2,000,000 baby turkeys a year.  He raised some 330,000 on his farms, and the rest were sold to turkey grow­ers as far away as the West Coast.  Browning oper­at­ed his own fleet of ten air-con­di­tions trucks he called “Poultry Pullmans” to haul baby birds from the hatch­ery to oth­er buyers.

His hens took about 20 weeks to mature, and toms about 24 weeks.  During that time, each bird would con­sume about 80 pounds of feed and reach a weight of about 18 pounds.  To feed the flocks, his mill ground 100 tons of feed a day that went straight to the farms.  To keep dis­eases from spread­ing, the turkeys were sep­a­rat­ed into six grow­ing and breed­ing units that were fur­ther divid­ed into flocks of 12,000 to 14,000 birds kept in dif­fer­ent fields. 

Slaughtering and pro­cess­ing mature turkeys took place on an assem­bly line under the super­vi­sion of gov­ern­ment inspec­tors.  There were two lines with a com­bined capac­i­ty to process 28 birds a minute.  The turkeys were then iced briefly to low­er their body tem­per­a­ture before freez­ing overnight at 35 degrees below zero.  For the final step, they were brought back to be pack­aged, weighed and boxed for shipping.

Browning pro­duced about 8,000,000 pounds of turkey for the whole­sale mar­ket and employed 200 in his pro­cess­ing plant plus anoth­er 60 at the farms and hatch­ery.  He was an indus­try leader in the dri­ve to increase turkey con­sump­tion.  His mot­to was, “Eat turkey and live longer.”  The indus­try claimed that domes­ti­cat­ed turkeys were low­er in fat and high­er in vit­a­mins than any oth­er meat-pro­duc­ing animal.

A Lexington Herald arti­cle in 1961 stat­ed that turkey rais­ing in Kentucky exceed­ed the poundage of tobac­co, the state’s sig­na­ture crop.  Burley grow­ers grew 5 mil­lion pounds of tobac­co the pre­vi­ous year, while turkey grow­ers pro­duced about 13 mil­lion pounds of turkey.  Most of the state total came from the farms of Perry Browning and Charles Berryman in Clark County, who raised 500,000 and 150,000 turkeys, respectively.

The 1960s saw grow­ers switch­ing from the “bronze” turkeys they had been rais­ing to white turkeys that buy­ers pre­ferred.  But the decade also includ­ed omi­nous trends.  Although still active, Browning was approach­ing 70.  And Berryman had leased out his pro­cess­ing plant to the Hebrew National Kosher Foods of New York, the largest kosher food com­pa­ny in the nation.

Browning died in 1970, and Berryman briefly reigned as the largest turkey pro­duc­er in the state.  But the indus­try was chang­ing.  That year Kentucky farms only raised about 100,000 turkeys.  In 1972, Billy Reed wrote in the Courier-Journal, “Browning’s is no more.  In fact, there are no more turkey farms here [Clark County]—or in the whole state, for that mat­ter.” Browning’s plant on Maple Expressway—occupying more than 40,000 square feet of floor area and 275 feet of road frontage—went up for sale.

To find out what hap­pened to the county’s turkey indus­try, I spoke to Clay Wills, a Clark County farmer and long-time ag teacher at the high school.  There were two major fac­tors con­tribut­ing to the col­lapse.  Growers in oth­er states had increased pro­duc­tion and low­ered costs by rais­ing their birds in envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­trolled barns that could house thou­sands of turkeys and pro­vide pro­tec­tion from preda­tors, dis­ease and weath­er extremes.  These mass pro­duc­tion tech­niques con­tributed to a 75 per­cent decrease in turkey prices between 1940 and 1970.  Kentucky’s open-range turkey grow­ers sim­ply could not compete.

Turkey farms have made a come­back in the state.  In 2021 Kentucky count­ed 672 turkey grow­ers with cash receipts of almost 25 mil­lion dollars—accounting only for 0.3 per­cent of U.S pro­duc­tion.  Many are small farms where the birds still roam free.  These most­ly sup­ply a gourmet mar­ket for organ­i­cal­ly raised turkeys.

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