Woman Loves Life On A West Virginia Turkey Farm
We got off the interstate highways and onto the back roads on our return trip from Virginia last week. We met some great people like Angie Rexrode and her husband, Kenton.
Angie drove into a pizza shop/motel parking lot in the small town of Brandywine, W.Va., a few minutes after my husband and me had arrived. We were debating if we wanted to spend the night in the tiny motel out back, but at her encouragement, we rented Room 5.
As is often the case, we struck up a conversation and the next thing I knew I was taking notes while sitting in the front seat of her vehicle, which was traveling toward her house, while my husband followed in ours.
She turned off of the paved road after we had traveled three or four miles. We began driving across her neighboring farmers’ properties, crossing cattle guards along the way, with the scenic Shenandoah Mountains in the distance. She pointed out who lived on each farm and gave a little information about each property-owner. By the time we reached the Rexrode 300-acre spread, we had crossed three neighboring properties, with one taking up 1,000 acres, and had driven over 10 cattle guards. We passed several groups of grazing deer along the way.
My guide pointed out their hunting camp on the left before we climbed a steep grade. When we reached the top, we were overlooking a lake with tall banks which had been nicknamed Mitten Lake, due to its shape. It had been built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963 for flood control and had proven its worth during, what the locals refer to as the Flood of 1985, a 100-year flood and had protected the Rexrode’s Fort Seybert, W.Va. property.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the floodwaters had risen 80 feet above the normal level of the lake. The overflowing water followed the course designed by the engineers. It went to the west and due south when it intersected with the spillway, working exactly in the way it had been designed.
A pipe had been installed through the wall of the dam to help provide water for the cattle and wherever else needed on the property owner’s farm. At one time it provided water for irrigation, but no longer is capable of producing that amount.
We traveled back in the direction in which we had come, turned to the left and drove past several long poultry houses, each about 20,000 square feet in size. The driver brought the SUV to a stop in front of the last long building. From the building Kent Rexrode walked to my side of the SUV, but not until after covering his shoes with knee-high booties, which are worn to prevent carrying diseases to the turkeys housed inside. We had a conversation about M. B. Rexrode Turkey Farm, the business his parents started in 1955 and now he and his brother, Michael own with their 91-year old mother, Eleanor.
“She was the best egg picker my dad had until my brother and I came along,” Kent said about his mother.
The family had used all six of the poultry houses in the past, but now use two with 4,000 turkey layers in each. The current breed is Nicholas, but the family has had Canadian Hybrids and British laying hens prior to this. According to Rexrode, the operation “was quite crude” in the early years.
“As far as I know, these are the only turkey layers in West Virginia,” he said.
There are many other turkey farms in the area. The others raise and sell turkeys, whereas the Rexrodes sell the eggs. The birds come to them when they are 29 weeks old and begin bonding with the humans from the start because they are present and mingling with them. They start laying eggs within two weeks of their arrival.
Natural fertilization has proven to be unsuccessful and was abandoned many years ago. Artificial insemination begins during the 31st week and happens four times in 8 or 10 days and then on a weekly cycle. The third through 12th week after insemination brings the maximum production. The hens can lay as many as five eggs weekly for a short time and then the numbers gradually decline.
The need to have egg production at any time of the year to satisfy supply and demand requires light control in the buildings. The birds are given light boosts with the 16th week being most crucial in the dark houses. Morning light stimulates them, but evening light does not.
“We have very good production. We go the extra mile,” Rexrode told me.
Even though they use over 1,300 Israeli-made mechanical nests, whose eggs move by conveyor belt, there are birds who prefer laying their eggs on the floor. Those eggs are manually retrieved while they are fresh and before they are cracked or eaten. The eggs are picked 18 times each day with only one percent requiring manual picking. For 17 years prior to the installation of the special equipment Rexrode picked all eggs by hand. The eggs are washed with a British-made egg washer which uses a bleach and water solution.
“These are the most expensive poultry houses to build because of the equipment involved,” the poultry farmer said.
He is one of ten turkey-laying operations with the company in which he is involved and his farm consistently gets more eggs per flock than the others.
“Turkey breeders is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture,” he stated.
The eggs are hatched in Harrisonburg, Va., to sell to local farms or they are sent overseas, sometimes after they have hatched.
Mr. Rexrode called the poultry industry in his area a blessing and said “it would be absolutely desolate without it.”
The family employs 4-5 part-time workers. Kenton is the turkey man and admits he always has a pet or two.
“I like to have a gobbler, they have a good personality and make a good pet.”
Mike Rexrode wears a lot of different hats, including caring for 65 head of beef cattle. Every time the birds leave, the brothers must wash out the buildings in their entirety using a minimum of 20,000 gallons to wash the two buildings from ceiling to floor.
“It is a lot of work, especially in the cold weather,” says Kent. “Some laying houses in other areas have heat, but not in this area”
After learning about the turkey-laying operation, his wife took us to their home. Between the overhead doors of the attached garage was a very large traffic light that had an on off switch and was in working order. Our hostess was quite proud of two parking meters she had acquired after they had been removed by a local village and which had been installed to the left of the last overhead door. A fire hydrant sat nearby. In the left bay of the garage was Kent’s canvas-covered 1969 Chevy Camaro Z-28 SS. The couple still has Mrs. Rexrode’s first car, a 1974 Chevy Nova in its original condition, a vehicle she bought from her brother for $800, plus $50 for the studded snow tires.
Once we were inside we saw the farm wife’s collection of vintage glass medicine bottles and a collection of tin containers which included spice and coffee cans. The purchase of a Rexall reel roll cotton can, which still contained a full roll of the soft white material, was what piqued her interest in this collection. Her other interests are sewing and quilting. She confesses she has taken finished projects apart because they did not meet with her satisfaction.
Mrs. Rexrode has always lived in the local area and was raised just 13 miles away in a rural community called Fringe Run. When she was five months old her mother, sister and brother moved into the small, modest home of her mother’s parents. They had no indoor bathroom until the seventies. She, being the youngest, slept in a double bed between her grandparents while her brother slept in a twin bed in the same room. Her mother and sister slept in a double bed in another bedroom.
The house’s water source was at the kitchen sink with the family heating it on the stove. They took sponge baths at the kitchen sink. The girls dried their hair with a vacuum cleaner. A bathtub was added to the home in the nineties, several years after Mrs. Rexrode had left home to marry. She remembers at the age of 23 and after she was married, being afraid to get into the shower for fear of drowning.
“My grandma and her half-brother lived fence line to fence line and shared a spring. One family had six people and the other had four.”
They had to use the water sparingly, carrying it in a box holding four-gallon buckets or transport it in milk cans in the car.
Her grandmother wouldn’t allow the girls to play with boys, other than their brother. She remembers riding her bike, which she still has, zig-zagging back and forth in the road in front of her house and playing volleyball in the same road.
“We made our own fun. We would make juice from berries and mudballs,” she said. “We played at my grandma’s half-brother’s garage down the road. I know tools by their names and their uses.”
“If there’s something that needs fixing, she’s better to fix it generally than I am by far,” her husband said.
She loves to cook and bake and attributes her know-how to her grandmother.
“Grandma said ‘watch me. You’ll want to learn how to do this one of these days and I’m not always going to be around to show you’ and I’m glad I did.”
She always substitutes one of the large turkey eggs, which have two yolks, when a recipe calls for two eggs and adds a package of dry instant pudding mix whenever baking cake from a mix.
She has shared some of the recipes she frequently makes. When making the Hot Rolls she monitors, rather than times them and removes from the oven when they are done. The Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe came from her mother-in-law.
Make it a priority to travel the roads less traveled. You may be surprised who you meet.
6 c water
3/4 c oil
1 c sugar
2 tsp salt
4 pkgs yeast
5 lb flour
Measure very warm tap water into bowl large enough to hold oil, sugar, salt and yeast and then add them. Stir until foamy. Put all of flour in a very large bowl or pan. Make a hole in center. Add wet ingredients. Combine with hands and then knead. Cover loosely with greased wax paper. (I set mine on a bench above the register from my wood stove.) Let rise until double in size. Divide risen dough into 60 walnut-sized balls and then set into greased pans. Cover with wax paper and let rise again. Bake in 350 degree oven until golden brown.
1 box cake mix
1 box instant vanilla pudding mix
1 c water
1/2 c oil
Mix cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, water and oil. Bake in a greased 10-inch tube pan at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes.
1/2 c butter
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 c confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Melt butter in skillet or heavy saucepan. Add brown sugar and cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk. Cook and stir until it comes to a boil. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. gradually add approximately 1 1/2 c confectioners’ sugar. Stir and beat until thick enough to spread.
Banana Pineapple Cake
2 c sugar
3 c flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp soda
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 c diced bananas
8 oz can crushed pineapple
1 c oil
1/2 c water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, soda and salt. Add the rest of ingredients. Mix well, but do not beat. Pour into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan. Bake 1 hour 20 minutes. Cool well before removing from pan.