WATERMAN – Most families get a little busier in the days before Thanksgiving.
But it gets a lot busier for Robert Kauffman’s family because the family business is dressing thousands of fresh turkeys for families in DeKalb County and across northern Illinois. Waterman’s Howard Kauffman Turkey Farms, known more commonly as Ho-Ka, started in 1933 with 300 birds dressed in the basement of the family home.
“This is my grandfather’s farm,” Kauffman said. “My dad [Howard] came home from the [University of Illinois] and said he thought he could make a little money raising turkeys.”
This year, Kauffman expects the operation will sell about 70,000 birds.
During the holidays, the seven-person operation grows to employ 100 people who prepare the birds for sale in the farm’s retail operation. Ho-Ka turkeys are available locally at Inboden’s in DeKalb and Headon’s in Creston, and at more than 100 independent grocers and butcher shops throughout the Chicago area.
Kauffman said he receives the turkeys from a hatchery in Minnesota, one of the nation’s largest turkey-producing states. The birds are fed and tended for 16 to 18 weeks before the holiday rush.
“They have food available all the time,” Kauffman said. “It’s a mixture of corn, soybean meal and other nutrients. Our nutritionist tells us the best mixture.”
Although he buys the soybean meal, Kauffman raises the corn himself on 340 acres.
“They grow at an incredible rate,” said Kauffman, adding that genetics cause the birds to grow about a pound bigger every year. “We have the nutrition down pretty good. It’s all genetics now.”
Employees in the processing plant work nearly shoulder-to-shoulder cleaning and packaging the birds. A federal inspector looks at each turkey.
Three ice-making machines on the roof can’t keep up with the demand. They start bagging ice a month before the rush just to have enough to cool the birds from their normal body temperature of about 100 degrees down to 40, Kauffman said.
Each bird is shrink-wrapped in plastic, with a label showing only the information Kauffman believes is necessary – the Ho-Ka trademark, the federally-inspected seal, cooking instructions and little else.
As for the extras that other processors print on their labels, Kauffman said: “Natural? What does that mean? Antibiotic free? If a bird gets sick, we will treat it. I think it’s cruel not to.”
One year he raised a small flock on a vegetarian diet, but he didn’t notice a difference in the taste.
“It’s not easy, but it can be done,” Kauffman said. “Turkeys are omnivores; they will eat anything.”
Nate Inboden said his family business takes orders for Ho-Ka turkeys for three different delivery dates.
“They are locally raised, and people are interested in local food,” Inboden said. “We have a long-term relationship with the Kauffmans, and we’re helping to sustain the local economy.”
Howard Kauffman Turkey Farms sells turkeys in their own retail operation Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as at area grocery stores.
Address: 8519 Leland Road, Waterman