Lee Newman loves his turkeys.
Born and raised in Sumter County, Newman originally started out as a row crop farmer 36 years ago, right out of high school, on the family farm in the Concord community of the county.
In 2000, he decided to expand his operation and become a turkey grower for Prestage Farms, which has its headquarters in North Carolina and an operation in nearby Cassatt in Kershaw County.
He said he decided to raise turkeys to diversify his farm operation and be more sustainable.
"It's kind of like the old saying - 'You don't want all your eggs in one basket' - I did it for long-term sustainability," Newman said. (Even though Newman never sees the turkey eggs more on that later.)
He raises "heavy toms," which are white-feathered male turkeys. They grow to about 40 pounds and are the commercial breed of turkeys.
His family works with him on the "family farm," as Newman describes it. The turkey operation has three separate poultry farms. His wife, Tina, manages the day-to-day operations of one, and two of his daughters - Ashlee and Lauren - and Lauren's fiance, Jacob Brown, manage the other two farms. Newman oversees all three farms and a crop-farming business that grows tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton, among other items. There are eight employees on the family farm.
Newman says there are a lot of misconceptions today about the poultry business.
Many not in the business think, he says, that growers fill the turkeys with hormones and steroids and raise them outside in eight weeks on "factory farms."
Newman said that might have been the case 50 years ago, but it's not the truth at all today. He does believe in the use of antibiotics though, if some turkeys are sick.
"I care about the birds," Newman said. "We want healthy birds, just like someone wants their children to be in a healthy environment."
He describes the use of antibiotics with sick turkeys as like children in a sick nursery.
"If you don't take those kids to the doctor, then somebody is going to get really sick with a high fever," Newman said. "Turkeys, chickens and livestock are the same way. When they get an infection, like a human being - if you don't treat it - they will die."
Even with turkeys that receive antibiotics when sick to nurse them back to health, there's a withdrawal period in which their bodies are cleansed from any medicines before they go to market, according to Newman and Prestage Farms Production Manager Tommy Smith.
IT'S A YEAR-ROUND BUSINESS
Contrary to what some may think, growing turkeys isn't a seasonal business but year-round, Newman said.
With his operation in affiliation with Prestage Farms, Prestage owns the birds, he said. The turkeys are hatched in a hatchery in North Carolina, and then about 50,000 male birds - toms - are boxed up and transported at one-day old to Newman Family Farm in Sumter.
After arriving on the farm, the baby turkeys are kept in climate-controlled brooders for five weeks, Newman said. In those initial weeks, the birds grow to about 3 or 4 pounds in four heated houses.
After five weeks, the toms are transported to a grow-out farm for about 15 weeks until they reach their full size of about 40 pounds, according to Newman. His grow-out farm consists of eight barns, which house a little more than 5,000 toms each.
At all times, the turkeys have access to water and feed and are inside in a climate-controlled environment, protected from predators, weather and disease, Newman said.
A Prestage truck returns to the farm when the birds reach full size at 20 weeks old and transports the 50,000 turkeys about 100 miles to Newberry and the Kraft Foods' turkey processing plant. There, the turkeys are fully cooked and sliced into sandwich meats, turkey bacon and other products that are then distributed to grocery stores throughout the U.S. None of his toms become "bagged turkeys," which are generally more popular seasonally.
According to Smith from Prestage, Kraft buys the turkeys from Prestage, and then Prestage pays Newman Family Farm.
Newman said in a typical year his farm has three rotations - or "flocks" - of turkeys. That's 150,000 heavy toms grown a year.
In the turkey industry, toms are processed into sandwich meat, while female turkeys - or hens - become bagged turkeys, generally reaching 14 to 20 pounds in size. Like toms, hens are also raised year-round, but they are placed in cold storage so there will be plenty to sell seasonally this time of year for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the holidays, Newman said.
He says he loves his work with Prestage Farms for the last 17 years, and it fills him and his family with a sense of pride.
"We are working for a company that's providing a healthy food for the public," Newman said. "That's something to be proud of."