Ben Pate, 68, is a numbers guy.
He knows his house in Ruskin is 3.4 miles down Gulf City Road, around the fifth curve next to the church on the right. He knows he has 271 turkeys, a mix of broad-breasted whites and Bourbon Reds, on the ground now. He doesn’t give names to his turkeys, just numbers.
“And when Thanksgiving comes around I say, ‘Your number is up.’”
It’s a week before Thanksgiving at Pate’s turkey farm near Cockroach Bay, where he’s been raising all-natural turkeys for 10 years, attracting a foodie following from all over Central Florida.
When he and his wife purchased the house and land in 1972, no one lived nearby. The farm is still pretty isolated; he can count his neighbors on one hand. He grew up not far from where he stands today.
“I’d take a patch of my neighbor’s big field and plant a garden,” he says. “I’d grow veggies on the back plot. I can’t help it, I’ve always wanted to grow things.” He ran a wholesale nursery on the land at first, then turned to raising chickens, quails, and rabbits — and finally, turkeys.
On the vast flat landscape, his birds roam free. They gather in squawking cliques near the water. The Bourbon Red males strut about, sprouting their colorful plumes in a cornucopia of deep reds, stopping to briefly mount available females.
Their smell, to put it mildly, is pungent. It permeates the air with a spicy earthiness.
“When I started raising turkeys, I tried five different varieties,” Ben explains. “Bourbon Reds were the best for me.”
A popular breed of domestic turkey at the turn of the last century, Bourbon Reds’ fame has tapered out since then, except in Ben’s eyes. He says their extra flank of fat adds flavor to the meat.
The day-old Bourbon Red poults (baby turkeys) arrive in April and the broad-breasted white poults in July, all through the U.S. Mail. Broad-breasted whites are the variety most people will eat this Thanksgiving, but the 15-pound Butterball you get at the supermarket isn’t likely to have benefited from the same treatment as the ones raised on Pate’s farm.
“The broad-breasted whites are raised by the thousands in barns and never see sunshine,” he says. “They raise them cheap and fast, killing them out in nine weeks, feeding them anything to make ’em grow faster.”
Ben Pate cares about what he feeds his turkeys, so much so that he drives 102 miles round trip from Ruskin to Zephyrhills for his specially made turkey feed.
“My birds don’t get any medication,” Ben says. “All I give them extra is fish meal and flax seed for Omega-3’s.”
His is the only all-natural turkey farm within a 150-mile radius of Tampa Bay. Co-ops in Indian Rocks Beach, Pinellas Park and elsewhere order their turkeys through Pate. But most of his business comes from individuals.
His marketing plan consists of word of mouth and a black and white business card. Most people just know his name. When orders come in on his cell phone, he writes them down on the back of the card, and the turkeys have to be picked up in person at his farm.
“If they want a turkey, they’ll call,” he said. He still has a few turkeys available for last-minute Thanksgiving orders and holiday dinners.
Today, Ben needs to “dress” at least two turkeys, four if possible — “dress” being the polite term for kill, defeather and disembowel.
“I got my turkey-killing shoes on today. See all the dried blood?”
When a turkey’s number is up, he plops it head-first into a wire cone and slides his trusty knife over its throat. The process is quick.
“I’ll do 70 on Monday,” he says. His brother and nephew will come down from Clermont to help him during Thanksgiving week, like they always do.
Broad-breasted whites are $3.25 per pound; Bourbon Reds are $3.75 per pound.
“For the most fresh turkey, I’ll kill and dress them the same day they’re being picked up.”
Ben raises and dresses his family’s Thanksgiving turkey, but his niece and brother do the preparation.
“I make the punch, lemonade, and ambrosia salad. My wife makes chicken and yellow rice,” he says. “We all eat and have a good time.”
The former Tampa firefighter retired in 1986. When he isn’t raising turkeys, he’s the assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Sun City, which sits adjacent to his home and farm. On weekday mornings, he goes to the Manatee County Jail, where he has volunteered as a chaplain with his wife since 1997.
Pate returns home at 10:30 a.m. from the jail and releases the birds from the pens where they’ve spent the night, out of reach of bobcats and raccoons in the nearby woods.
“When I was raising chickens, I’d see them running away with a chicken in their mouths,” he says. “So now I keep them locked up at night.”
So when 4 o’clock rolls around, Ben gets the attention of the nearly 300 turkeys roaming across the prairie with a rolling screech that sounds oddly reminiscent of the Howard Dean scream. Immediately, squawks fly and feathers flap as they make their way back.
The bad boy Bourbon Reds hanging out back ignore Ben’s call. He lets out a second turkey holler, and they move begrudgingly.
Ben shepherds the turkeys into their cages with a long PVC pipe. The slow broad-breasted whites go in first, while the Bourbon Reds bide their time, climbing on top of the pens and tree branches.
Despite the impending doom, being a turkey on Ben Pate’s farm doesn’t seem the worst fate. Open land where they are free to move about, an all-natural diet, and a kind man tending the flock until the end.
He doesn’t pet the birds or cuddle them; he just takes care of them.
“It’s okay to kill them for food,” he says. “But killing just to kill, I don’t like that.”
After all the birds are dressed and sold, Ben Pate’s farm on Gulf City Road goes silent.
“Yeah, it’ll be quiet until April,” he says smiling. “That’s when the next flock comes in.”
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