“This is what’s left of an operation that used to grow close to 100,000 turkeys”, Art DiPaola shared as I began my tour of his turkey farm, located in Hamilton Township, NJ.
DiPaola Turkey Farm was started by Art’s father 60 years ago. What I saw on my visit is a business that has refined itself over the years: they now raise fewer birds but sell at more farmers’ markets.. At the height of production, DiPaola Turkeys was raising their birds on different farms throughout New Jersey and then selling the turkeys up and down the Northeast coast, including a deal with the United States Postal Service in which every USPS employee got a DiPaola turkey (that translated to 22,000 turkeys). In addition, DiPaola used to breed their own turkeys on site. Art was palpably relieved to done with that side of turkey farming:
“I wouldn’t be in this business if we were still doing that. Seven days a week; 24 hours a day; [it’s] not cost effective.”
My visit to DiPaola was months in the making. Back on a bitter January day, I had engaged in a lively interview with Dan Deleo, one of Art’s main workers (and husband to one of the DiPaola cousins). At the time of the interview, Dan had suggested that I call Art to arrange a time to visit. Unbeknownst to me, calling in January meant that there wouldn’t be much for me to see; at DiPaola, turkey husbandry and slaughtering takes place from July to January. The mid winter months are used for getting the farm back into shape and recovering.
The months between January and July found me playing phone tag with Art DiPaola, as Art attempted to predict the best time for me to visit. The final kink in planning my visit happened after we had already set a date. Art thought my visit should coincide with the arrival of the newborn poults (baby turkeys). Unfortunately, the poult drop-off date wasn’t definitive and ended up being delayed. This situation did give me a small glimpse into the unexpected daily life of farmers. Ultimately, I didn’t know I was heading over to DiPaola Turkey Farm until the day before my visit.
When I arrived last Tuesday morning, the operation seemed quiet. There were two workers slowly strolling down the driveway and one worker—Dana—in the front office. At 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, I was only a few hours into my working day. In contrast, the DiPaola workers had been up since 2 in the morning, preparing for the arrival of the poults. A few of the workers had gone home or were about to, but Art and his ‘right hand man’, also named Dan (there are four workers named Dan at the farm!), were gearing up for one of their longest days of the year. They didn’t expect to stop working until close to midnight.
After hanging around the office for a bit, Art arrived, with a booming voice and firm handshake. I slid some plastic boots on over my shoes and we walked to the first barn. The barn’s insulation raised the temperature on the already hot day to a stifling level. I hadn’t known what poults looked, sounded, or acted like, and when I entered the barn, I was inundated by steady chirping. Instead of being grating the chirping was quite soothing. Art agreed, commenting, “I love this; I love what I do”.
The two barns house about 15,000 of these chirping, eager, tired poults. The birds had just arrived from Canada and Ohio. Because I was there on arrival day, I witnessed the birds at their most confused and fragile, as they adjust to their surroundings and learned how to feed.
Art shared that the poults were 36 hours old and that he was pleased to see how lively they were. For the first week, the poults are divided up by cardboard, each little unit equipped with a heating lamp, feeding troughs, and water. The food (75% protein) and water is placed in the troughs manually because the birds are too small to reach the automatic machines. After about a week, the cardboard dividers are removed and the poults “have the run of the barn”, before they’re moved into other barns.
Over the next four months, these little chirping birds will become the plump turkeys DiPaola sells at the markets and on-site for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Art is an inspired businessman with extremely high standards. His love for the birds and the operation was quickly apparent to me. Did growing up on a turkey farm easily translate into Art joining the family business?
“No, NO!”, Art laughed, drawing out the word ‘no’, in response to my question. “In fact, I hated it, when my father started. My father always told me when I graduated high school, I better have one of two things in place: enrollment in a college or a full time job. I didn’t have either.… When I graduated high school, I said ‘please give me the summer off and then I want to work at the farm in September.’ It wasn’t until probably 5 years later that I realized I was watching his business grow…. I started looking at this stuff and said, it’s gotta pay off, if I stick with it.”
I visited a smooth running, confident operation. Art only hires trustworthy people and has been known to terminate an employee 2 hours into his first shift. Workers who succeed under his high standards are treated with care and respect. The success of the business is due to years of hard work by Art and his brother (who got out of the business about 10 years ago). Art’s role at DiPaola Turkeys has shifted from hands-on to “supreme allied commander”, as he described it.
Admittedly, Art misses working with hands and getting dirty.
“The fact of the matter is, I won’t get dirty today or tomorrow,” he says. “Everything I say to these guys [his workers] I’ve been there; I’ve done it all. I have a nice little office, but I miss cutting wood, hammering nails. I miss it. We built all this I know how to build; how to put cinderblock together; I can shingle a roof.”
Over the years, the turkey farm has slowly become surrounded by housing developments. Shockingly, many of the houses seem to be practically on top of the turkey farm’s property, the homes’ decks facing directly onto the farm. Every home’s deed has a turkey farm clause (in case the homeowner was ignorant of the turkey farm across from them), yet the fact remains: sitting on one’s deck means that being directly downwind from a turkey farm.
DiPaola turkeys are a hybrid breed. When the poults weigh 10-11 pounds they look like basketballs. “People want to see plumpness”, DiPaola says. These birds are cost effective in terms of feed conversion and are majority female (males are simply too expensive to produce as many need to be cut down for downgrades due to tough skin). As the birds mature they have the option to remain inside or go outside, as they choose. And on hot or rainy days, they frequently choose to stay inside!
Giving the birds outdoor space is not only about allowing the birds to have the best life possible. Ultimately, DiPaola Turkey Farm is in the business of slaughtering turkeys and selling the best meat possible. Offering the turkeys outdoor space translates to a better product. Art shared that ventilation is the most important thing for a turkey’s helath and while he feels that grass in their diet is less important, he recognizes that people want to support a humane operation such as his. He was quick to point out that, “No matter how humane you try to be, the fact of the matter is you have to cut the throat of that animal. Or you just don’t eat meat. I choose to eat meat.”
As expected, Thanksgiving is the farm’s most hectic, profitable day and is also the only time where the farm store does more business than the Greenmarkets. Art described the chaos:
“I have a cop that I put out front, just as a courtesy to get people in and out of here safely. When this business was built, Edinburgh Rd was a two-lane highway and my father might have sold 200 turkeys out of here. Now, we’re up at 5,000 turkeys and cars are coming in and out of this little driveway. To have people come in year after year, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m actually getting grandkids! What else is there?! I answer my phone all through Thanksgiving Day. The most humorous are the new brides, [calling] in a panic. I enjoy that experience [and tell them], relax, I’ll guide you through step by step.”
All of DiPaola’s birds are slaughtered onsite, in the processing facility behind the farm store. They can put out 2,000 turkeys in 8 hours, though back when Art’s father was alive, they used to process 366 turkeys an hour (almost 50% more back then!). The processing equipment was well taken care of and much older than I expected: the line was 60-70 years old. Art said that he could still buy replacement wheels and brackets for it, if necessary.
Art, who shared that he can multitask 15-20 duties at once, recognizes that he has high standards. It’s his operation and it’s his name on the product. My visit fell at the cusp of the busy season. Throughout these next four months, Art knows that he will see an increase in business (currently, some market business is off as much as 35% due to the heat), culminating in Thanksgiving and Christmas.
After having spent a few hours observing the poults and chatting with Art, I had to return to the city and Art had to get back to work. But before I left, I made sure to ask Art for his favorite product. “The hot sausage—no question about it.”
You can find DiPaola hot turkey sausages and other products at numerous markets around the city. Click HERE for a complete list.
Despite the heat, they’re still selling numerous products, prefect for barbequing and grilling. The guys at the stand are cheerful and quick to provide you with tips and recipe recommendations.
See more pictures from my visit to DiPaola Farm HERE.