June 18, 2014

Turlock has thrived on turkey

Foster Farms, which celebrated its 75th anniversary Monday, is just one of several companies that have made Turlock a major producer of turkeys for decades.

Foster Farms, which celebrated 75 years in the poultry business this week, is a relative latecomer in this city’s turkey history.

The Turlock area has been a major producer for nearly a century, with companies of various sizes turning out whole birds and other items. Foster Farms has operated here since 1982 and today employs about 1,300 people at a pair of plants, but other producers have made a mark, too.

“Turlock was always the turkey capital,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, based in Modesto. “The leaders of the community were turkey breeders, turkey growers, turkey hatchers.”

Many of the names – Christoffersen, Swanson, Soderstrom and more – are well-known families in the Turlock area. A few others, such as Armour and ConAgra, are national players that owned plants here for a time.

For much of its history, the industry mainly produced turkeys for Thanksgiving, and the weather in the months leading up to it was ideal, said Jim Theis, who spent about 30 years in turkey management before becoming a real estate broker.

The farms today are in large barns where the birds roam the floors, unlike the open operations of the past. And the industry has moved into year-round production, thanks to consumer appetites for ground turkey, lunch meats, marinated breasts and other value-added products.

“It’s not just your holiday turkey,” Theis said.

Foster Farms got its start in 1939 on a ranch west of Waterford owned by Max and Verda Foster. Their first product was baby turkeys that they sold to other farmers to raise to market weight. Chickens soon followed, and they were the predominant business for decades. Foster Farms got back into turkey in a big way with two Turlock acquisitions, the Grange Co. in 1982 and ConAgra’s Butterball plant in 1999.

Turlock’s first notable turkey raiser was A.C. “Pat” Rapp, who built a hatchery in 1916, according to “Streams in a Thirsty Land,” a 1972 history of the area by Helen Hohenthal and numerous contributors.

“Around 1920, Turlock began going crazy about turkeys,” Rapp told the author. The book tells how he “helped many young fellows get started in the turkey business, giving them 250 to 300 poults each for a start. He never billed them, and frequently went unpaid.”

Enoch Christoffersen entered the business in 1923, when he started Valchris Inc. He would become a major producer and, for 22 years, the mayor of Turlock.

“Around 1934, the turkey season was about 90 days, and Christoffersen packed somewhat over 100,000 turkeys a year,” the book recounts. “This was a substantial figure, but a trifle compared to the 1,700,000 birds processed annually by Christoffersen alone at the peak of the turkey business three decades later.”

Valchris was sold to the Grange Co. in 1975, seven years before Foster Farms bought the latter company.

Turkey flavors the history of Turlock. From 1946 to 1965, the city hosted the Far West Turkey Show, which drew producers from around the United States and Canada to the Stanislaus County Fairground. That same site was where California State University, Stanislaus, held its first classes in 1960 – and earned the nickname Turkey Tech, something later administrations played down.

And then there’s this morsel: The 1948 turkey show was the venue chosen by Barbara Orr of Oregon for her wedding to Fred Ehrhart. She fashioned her bridal gown out of about 37,500 turkey feathers and provided similar garb for the bridesmaids. The event drew coverage in Life magazine.

Turkey production has stimulated the Turlock economy, as farm and plant workers have spent their paychecks, and it spawned related ventures. Among them is Volk Enterprises Inc., which makes clamps that hold roasting birds in position and pop-up thermometers that signal when the birds are done.

Today, Foster Farms and smaller companies process a still-large number of turkeys from ranches in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. In 2012, according to agricultural commissioners, they numbered 2.5 million in Stanislaus County, 2.6 million in Merced County and 601,000 in San Joaquin County.

And the birds, once valued mainly as a centerpiece for Thanksgiving tables, now are considered a healthy kind of protein, and even a “superfood” among some nutrition experts.

“It has potential to grow just because of the health of the product,” Theis said.

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