When the processing plant that Jack Kleeb used closed down, he and Janie Burns of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa started Homegrown Poultry, a butchering plant in New Meadows that caters to small- to medium-sized operators. This year, they butchered about 1,500 turkeys for Thanksgiving. Kleeb also raises 4,000 to 6,000 meat chickens a year, and delivers 800 dozen eggs a month to Boise Co-op and Bittercreek Ale House. Kleeb grew up on the farm in Broken Bow, Neb., worked as a buckaroo in Texas, and after he fell into a pile of rocks holding a screaming chainsaw, he went back into the chicken business.
"I was in amphibs in the Navy during 'Nam, and I said I am never going to raise another damn chicken," Kleeb said, the morning after Thanksgiving at Red Feather Lounge, after making his delivery. Now he is a key link in the burgeoning homegrown poultry movement in Southwest Idaho.
How many of your customers are commercial?
It is hard to tell because we get more every year, but I would say the percentage of our customers right now that wholesale poultry, such as I do, are probably no more than 10 percent. The rest are just farmers, people from Boise here that raise a couple dozen chickens that need a place to have them processed. And we were the first state-certified processing plant in the state of Idaho. There is one more now, as I understand.
Who certifies you?
Our certification comes from the [Department of] Health and Welfare. To be state certified means that any product, poultry item, turkey, chicken, goose, duck, quail, whatever, can then be sold to any entity, person, whatever, in the state of Idaho. To sell outside of the state of Idaho, we would have to be USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] certified, which we're not. We looked at it, but we have decided that it's just not what we need right now. Too much red tape. Too much bureaucracy.
Are your Turkey Ridge Farm birds organic?
They are natural, naturally raised. We have what I call an organic farm, but we're not certified organic. I have neighbors that never met a chemical they didn't like. But we don't use any chemicals on the farm at all. Everything is done with organic intent in mind, and we feed only a grain-based ration, with the clean water from our well. And everything is pastured. It's turned out on a green growing pasture--chickens and turkeys and everything.
Did you eat one of your turkeys for Thanksgiving?
I raised a few heirloom turkeys, the old traditional turkeys that are the heirloom bronze. That was the original turkey, and these broad-breasted bronze and broad-breasted whites came later. They developed them for the large amount of breast meat that is produced. Well, I have the old style. I had two toms, a year old, so I processed them with one of the broad-breasted toms. My wife at the last moment decided she was going to have her two sons and their families, so I said that one heirloom that we were going to have was only like 16 pounds and that other one was like 21 pounds, and so we had it.
My wife's a professional cook, she cooks at BSU and she can turn out a top-notch turkey. She put that turkey in at noon--21 pounds--and took it out 6 o'clock yesterday evening, we ate at 7, and that thing was just like the most moist turkey. I've eaten a store-bought turkey and they are what they are. For the people that can't get a turkey of mine or someone else's that raised 'em like that, they'll do. But I tell you what, once you've eaten the type of turkey that I raise or that my peers would raise like that, you'll never go back. There is just so much difference there.
What's the difference between a store-bought turkey and one of yours?
The moistness, the flavor. The commercial turkeys are raised on a feed-starved diet of whatever they are going to get cheap and can run it through a mill and run it through an extruder to make a pellet ... and that's what they're fed. Same old, same old. They never see daylight hardly. They're on dirt. They never see a blade of grass. They never get any green forbs. They're not fed any hay. It's just bland flavor. They're dry, the breast meat just dries out. If you want to brine one, then probably you are going to get a little moister stuff. But then the flavor. What they eat is what they taste.
My turkeys at home--we have a walnut grove, English walnuts, we've got six mature trees and nut fall started about the first of October, so these turkeys have been eating walnuts. It's kind of funny to watch a turkey eat a walnut. You wouldn't think that they could crack that in their beak, but I'll tell you what, you wouldn't want to put your finger in a tom turkey's beak. And then we had a lot of pears that we didn't pick and so they ate pears and windfall apples and of course they were on pasture and the only grain I fed those turkeys was corn. And they were just absolutely wonderful.
I get telephone calls, e-mails on Thanksgiving Day, after people have eaten their dinner, telling me how good their turkey was.
Do you have any advice for backyard poultry farmers?
I understand the law in Boise says you can't have roosters and that's a shame. Of course, I understand the noise aspect. You will have some neighbors that love it, some that don't. I think for a few hens, it's kind of important to have rooster. He has a calming effect over the hens, and also, a rooster can be detrimental to some predators, not large predators, but some predators.
I like to see people that want to have a few chickens go back to the old breeds of chickens. The wyandottes are some of my favorite breeds of chickens. The buckeyes, they're a real nice chicken.
How did you learn to raise poultry?
I followed my grandfather around years and years ago in Nebraska. I'll be 65 years old after the first of the year, and in those days--I was an impressionable age, 5 or 6 years old--everything was organic. We had no chemicals, no chemicals at all and so everything was done the old-fashioned way. We were still plowing with horses at that time.
Grandpa always had a few turkeys around, and they raised a lot of chickens. Of course, they didn't have available the meat chicken strains that we have today. They were just chickens. But my grandmother, she had quite an eye for a chicken that would fit the pot more than the nest, if you take my meaning, and she would take these hens and watch them and she would get eggs from them. Or she might take a specific rooster and put it with a group of hens and lock 'em up and take those fertile eggs and let the broody hens hatch them, and she would mark 'em in such a way that those were the chickens that were for eating. I can remember she had some really broad-breasted eating chickens. You just remember things like that, from family. At my house, my mother raised 1,000 chickens a year. She had 500 laying hens and she would just get straight run chickens, which is pretty much an even mix of cockerels and pullets. We butchered the male chickens and we had to do 24 of them every Saturday morning before we could go to town. Going to town meant that we took the eggs and the cream to town and sold it.