Talking turkey at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Sterling - posted Mon., Oct. 7, 2013
Rick Hermonot talks about his turkeys. Photos by D. Coffey.
Rick Hermonot talks about his turkeys. Photos by D. Coffey.

Rick Hermonot enjoys talking to the people who visit his turkey farm at Ekonk Hill in Sterling. It was an easy leap for him to turn his passion and enthusiasm into a Walktober event. On Oct. 5, he led participants on a Walktober tour of the farm where he and his family raise more than 3,000 turkeys a year.

The Turkey Talk Walk brought visitors past cornfields, pastures ringed with electrified fences, and pens holding heritage turkeys. In the process, they learned about geology, turkey breeding history, the technology behind corn mazes, turkey nutrition, and the Connecticut corn crop.

The Hermonot family farm started out as a dairy farm with 200 cows. “Two hundred cows are a lot of cows,” he said, “but we were still small.” They made the switch to poultry and started a retail business in order to work more closely with their customers. “A retail farm was a more viable option,” said Hermonot. Ekonk Hill is the largest turkey producer in the state. They sell turkey, chicken, goose, beef, lamb, pork and goat meat.  The Brown Cow Café sells sandwiches, homemade ice cream, baked goods and Connecticut made products. But their raison d’etre is turkey, and their busiest season is just around the corner: Thanksgiving.

Ekonk Hill turkeys are pasture-raised on 10 acres of land. Fifteen feeders that are filled three times a week are placed strategically in that area. So is water. Shelters are available for the birds, but they rarely use them, even in bad weather. “Rain beads off their feathers,” Hermonot said.

The risks involved in pasture-raising birds are several. Predators such as owls, hawks, fox, coyote, weasel, bobcat and fisher hunt them. After a fisher killed 68 birds in one night, Hermonot put up an electrified fence. Then he added an Anatolian shepherd dog to his employee base. The dog lives in the pasture at night and it’s kept the predators at bay.

The other concern with pasture-raised birds is that wild birds will mix with them and spread disease. So twice a year veterinarians from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture visit and take random blood samples to check for bird flu.

The farm isn’t organic, but it does raise the birds naturally, according to Hermonot. They don’t use growth stimulants or put antibiotics into their feed like so many commercial bird farms do. But when one bird gets sick, it can spread easily among the flock. If that happens, they’ll give the birds antibiotics to clear it up.

Most of the birds sold at Ekonk Hill are Broad-Breasted Whites and Broad-Breasted Bronzes. Both types mature quickly, have large breasts and lots of white meat. “Consumers drive what we do,” Hermonot said. As white meat became prized over dark meat, producers bred the birds to supply those wants. The feathers figure into the pigmentation of the skin. Dark feathers can leave a dark pigment on the skin. Consumer demand for unblemished skin has made the Broad-Breasted White the most popular commercially-raised turkey.

For purists, Hermonot also raises Heritage turkeys, ancestors of the turkeys found in most supermarket freezers. The birds are hardier and some claim the meat is more flavorful. They also take longer to mature, which is another reason they’ve been replaced at commercial turkey farms.

More Turkey Talk walks are scheduled for the month. More than 100 Walktober walks, hikes, paddles and rides, and 38 events are scheduled through October. For more information, go to www.tlgv.org.


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