By Chris Aldridge, Kentucky Proud Connection
Late last year, Kathy Wheeler encountered a stumbling block that all small farmers and business people fear – a family illness.
Wheeler, who co-owns STAR Farm along with her husband, was unable to produce a full "crop" of Thanksgiving turkeys this fall after her 89-year-old father was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Edward Haney's cancer is now in remission. But because of the uncertainty of his future a year ago, Kathy raised only 50 birds this year, less than half of her usual flock of 100 to 200. Not surprisingly, she sold out of her unique heritage turkeys for the eighth year in a row in mid-October.
"I still get calls daily," Kathy said, noting she is planning on producing more than 100 turkeys for Thanksgiving 2013. "They take eight months to grow, so I'm planning right now for next year."
If you are among the fortunate few who reserved a STAR Farm turkey for your Thanksgiving feast this year, you can thank Kentucky's own "Turtleman" for protecting your bird.
Ernie Brown Jr., star of Animal Planet's popular "Call of the Wildman" TV series, visited STAR Farm in Hart County recently with cameras rolling as part of his nuisance animal removal business. The cable TV show follows Brown as he catches bothersome animals, usually predators, without harming them and releases them back into the wild.
"He came to our farm and saved our Bourbon Red turkeys from a critter," Kathy said. She said the episode featuring STAR Farm's turkey rescue is scheduled to be broadcast on Sunday, Dec. 16.
Kathy said STAR Farm's membership in Kentucky Proud has helped drive business to the farm, which also sells free-range chickens and eggs.
"Our farm is listed on the Kentucky Proud website, so I get calls from people that go onto the website to find products and contact us," she said. "Whenever we sell our birds at Thanksgiving, we put them in Kentucky Proud bags."
Unique Kentucky breed
STAR Farm specializes in Kentucky's own Bourbon Red breed of turkeys. The heritage breed was named for Bourbon County, where it originated in the late 1800s, and for the chestnut red color of its plumage. The Bourbon Red variety was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1909 and is known for its heavy breast and richly flavored meat.
"A gentleman named J.F. Barbee started developing it for the taste and lighter-colored feathers, which made the meat whiter for a better table presentation," Kathy explained. "In the 1930s and '40s, it was the bird of choice across the nation because of the taste before commercial birds bumped out heritage breeds."
Bourbon Reds declined in popularity because they couldn't be produced in enough numbers and didn't grow fast enough to compete with mass-produced, broad-breasted varieties. But over the past decade, renewed interest in the biological fitness, survivability, and flavor of the Bourbon Red has renewed consumer interest.
"The Bourbon Red is a heritage breed; it's not genetically altered to grow faster," Kathy said. "You can trace my birds back to their original roots as domesticated wild turkeys. They breed naturally, unlike commercial birds. They can live seven or eight years, where commercial breeds only live two years."
The average size of STAR Farm's free-range Bourbon Reds is 7 to 16 pounds because they actually fly. "My birds aren't as heavy as commercial birds because they're all natural," Kathy said.
Kathy became interested in raising turkeys when she went to a stockyard sale. "When we moved here, we had a heart to raise our own food," she stated. "I purchased some turkeys and ducks. I fell in love with the turkeys.
"Feeding time is my favorite part of raising turkeys," she added. "Chickens run away when you go out to feed them, but the turkeys run toward you."
Kathy visited the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website and discovered that the turkeys she had purchased were Kentucky Bourbon Reds.
"I realized there was a whole other breed of turkey – and that these beautiful birds were almost extinct," she said.
She raised her first crop of 20 Bourbon Reds in 2004. The following fall, she decided to begin sharing her turkeys with family and friends. "We even did a taste test between the commercial turkey and the heritage turkey," she said.
Brown-Forman chef played key role
Kathy credits Mark Williams, corporate executive chef at Brown-Forman in Louisville, for making STAR Farm's turkey business what it is today. Williams is also the Southern Regional governor at Slow Food USA, a grassroots organization that promotes local food.
"It was through his connections that got my turkey business off," Kathy said. "He bought some turkeys from me in 2005. He was so enamored with the product that he started promoting me through Slow Food. A lot of my customers today are original customers that he referred me to."
Kathy's love of the farming lifestyle was sparked at an early age. Her family lived on a farm when she was 3 years old. "I think the love of living on the farm got into my blood!" she stated. Her family soon left the farm, but Kathy was allowed to have a pet chicken that she walked on a leash.
While working as a secretary in Baltimore, Kathy met her husband, Scott, a truck driver who grew up on a farm in Northfield, Vt. "Our early childhood memory of farm life was a key factor in wanting to move back to the country," Kathy said.
The Wheelers moved from Edgewood, Md., to Kentucky in November 2003. They each had a horse boarded at a self-care facility, so they had to travel 10 miles from their suburban home twice a day to take care of them. They longed for a place big enough to have their horses in their own back yard. Flipping through an issue of Trail Rider Magazine, they came across an ad from Hart County Realty.
"We came down, looked, and bought 32 acres," Kathy said. "In Maryland, land was selling for $100,000 an acre, so when we saw the prices down here, it was a dream come true."
The couple brought their two horses, one of which was pregnant, with them. When the mare foaled in the spring of 2004, they named the filly San Te Amo Re. "Te Amo" means "I love you," and "Re" was added from the names of her dam and sire.
"Since San Te Amo Re was the first animal born on the farm, we used the acronym and named the farm STAR Farm," Kathy explained.
For more information on STAR Farm, visit www.bourbonredturkey.com.