For months, turkeys have been the center of attention in Johnston.
Ever since the Three Amigos – a gang of the birds that roamed through the center of town – made the news, Johnston’s attempts to capture them has residents really talking turkey. With one of the birds, affectionately called “Turk Key” by some, still on the lam, theirs is a story that continues to have wings.
But now that Thanksgiving is right around the corner, the focus has turned to the meal’s signature dish. And Johnston’s own Baffoni’s Poultry Farm, which has been supplying area families with their special holiday birds for generations, is ready to keep the tradition going. Since 1935, the Baffoni family has dedicated their Greenville Avenue farm to raising and dressing all natural poultry for the local community.
“I am the third generation here, and my children are the fourth,” said Paul Baffoni, who now runs the farm his grandfather started. “There’s a fifth generation, Ava, but she’s only four years old.”
According to the Baffonis, awareness for buying local produce and goods has grown during the last several decades and boosted the demand for locally raised, cage-free chickens and turkeys. They believe that people began to understand that their health, environment and local economy all benefit from the consumption of local produce.
The Baffonis’ 80-acre farm is equipped with coops that house roughly 25,000 chickens and about 1,500 turkeys. With the holidays now here, it’s one of their busiest times of the year. This season represents months of hard work by those at the farm.
“We have five flocks of various ages so we have the variety and sizes. Each flock is straight run, meaning that they are half male and half female. The first batch, which are the biggest ones at about 25 to 30 pounds, hatched in the middle of May,” said Paul. “The next two flocks came in June, and the largest flock arrived in July. The last ones, which are our little guys, they came in August, which gives us the 10- to 12-pound turkeys. A lot of our customers just don’t want a big turkey, so we can accommodate all types of variety in our orders.”
Beginning each spring, the Baffonis’ pick up their chicks from two hatcheries in Massachusetts and all the birds are local. This summer, however, was a tough one to be a turkey farmer.
“This summer we had a lot of heat and humidity, which is not good weather for turkeys. They do not like the hot weather. They get right off the feed and they sit around not doing much,” said Paul. “They love the weather that we’ve recently had, and they always seem to catch up size-wise. Cold days like we’ve recently had they love, and right now they’re really eating.”
The farm feeds both their chickens and turkeys a diet that is regimented, consistent, and free of antibiotics, hormones and meat byproducts. The turkey’s diet is mostly grains consisting of corn and soy.
“The turkeys are fed daily, there’s a close watch on everything, and we feed them greens such as kale or Swiss chard every three days,” said Paul. “That gives them an engagement, something to play with and make them happy, to bring them to as natural a situation as can be.”
Their way of doing business seems to really pay off come Thanksgiving. With orders already in, a sign posted in the farm stand now reads, “Sorry, turkeys sold out.”
“We did already sell out. It’s a challenge for us. We have a lot of press and exposure now, and what happens to us is we get orders from brand new customers and then my customers who have been buying turkeys for 50 years, some of them forget to call early and they get shut out,” said Paul. “A new customer is always welcomed, but it’s heartbreaking to turn people away that have been such loyal customers for so long.”
While the turkeys may all be accounted for, the Baffonis do also offer an alterative for a Thanksgiving meal.
“We do also have capons, large roasting chickens for Thanksgiving. Lots of people like them. They’re up to 12 pounds so they’re up to the size of a small turkey,” said Paul.
He also tries to keep 200 turkeys for Christmas, but said that during the last few years he’s had to go into the last batch, so less may be available for that holiday.
“But the demand at Christmas is not what it used to be. A lot of people cook different things for Christmas Day,” said Paul.
This week, the farm began the slow and long task of processing the turkeys for customers.
“A big day for processing turkeys will be on Saturday, then Monday will be the very biggest day because it’s closest to the holiday,” said Paul. “We cannot process on Tuesday and Wednesday because people are picking them up and they have to be all ready. My store is small, and I have to bring one thousand customers through there.”
Paul said he believes in the humane treatment of his birds and works hard to provide them with a nourishing habitat in which they can thrive. The farm’s on-site slaughterhouse allows them to sell fresh poultry without it being frozen. Baffoni's was also awarded Rhode Island's first and only USDA certification for an on-site poultry slaughterhouse in early 2014.
“We have a USDA food safety inspection service, so they are in the facility and check every bird. They have humane requirements on how we slaughter and how we handle the birds. It’s as humane as can be possible,” said Paul. “Twice a year they also come and verify that we are within the guidelines.”
The farmers do everything by hand, unlike larger operations that sometimes have problems with equipment that may not be set right and cause the birds to suffer. Paul said that no gas or stunning knives are used. He also believes his operation offers a safer alternative to so-called factory farms.
“I know there’s been some recent serious salmonella outbreaks with turkeys, where people got sick in 10 different states but not Rhode Island,” said Paul. “An issue like that brings people to a farm like mine because they are wary of the big factory farms, because when there’s a problem there it’s monumental. Everything here is strictly done by hand.”
While it was a tough summer for the turkeys, business at the farm stand – which sells a variety of farm fresh items – also felt the heat because of the construction projects needed along Greenville Avenue to complete the Citizens Bank campus development.
“We were hurt very badly from June through August at our farm stand. I estimate that we lost 50 percent of our normal take. Then, during the past three weeks, they’re working on the gas lines and we got hurt again,” said Paul. “Now, they’re going to prepare to pave Greenville Avenue, and I pray that it’s not when the people are picking up their turkeys.”
Paul said the Citizens development was monumental and that it was done well and as fast as possible. He added that he’s happy to have them as new neighbors. He’s also found that the town has been excellent towards his farm and its operation for as long as he can remember. Paul said that he’s proud to be a staple member of the community
“Yes, we had a short-term loss, but long-term we have more than 3,000 Citizens employees that we’re hoping become our customers,” he said. “There’s also two housing projects being built nearby, so I’d be thankful if we’d be able to regain what we lost and more from those developments.”