Doan Family Turkey pivots from COVID-19 challenges to family farming future
When COVID-19’s congregating-killing clutches gobbled up traditional demand for delicatessen counter, Christmas and Thanksgiving fare, Clair and Kathryn Doan strove to find another way to talk turkey marketing and sales.
“That was quite devastating to the turkey market,” Clair understated of the effects of closed deli counters and the effective cessation of turkey-based family meals. “Because everything was shuttered.”
In addition to supply management dictates cutting production to a small percentage of farmers’ full quota, rising costs related to PPE and other pandemic-directed safety measures coincided with falling prices. “At that point in time we had to re-evaluate our business.”
Doan Family Turkey was born out of necessity, however, even after post-COVID demand for turkey has rebounded, the business is continuing through hope. Hope to not only value add in the shorter term, but to present opportunity should any of the couple’s four children indicate a desire to farm in the future.
“It takes time to build a business,” said Clair. “If our children want to farm, that’s wonderful.
“If they don’t, there is no expectation.”
Clair and Kathryn began farming turkeys in 2009, producing 17-kilogram heavy toms destined for ground turkey or roasting and conversion into deli meats from day-old poults in 17 weeks.
At that time, the family finished 2,000 toms four times a year, expanding in 2012 and further again in 2017 to the point of shipping 5,500 toms four times per year.
“The first week is the most challenging,” says Clair, young birds the most vulnerable from day one through day five. “Turkeys are really sensitive to temperature fluctuations.”
They stay inside a brooding barn for the first five weeks, enjoying fresh bedding and ample space in a tightly climate controlled and well-ventilated environment. Young birds are transitioned to a grow barn from five to 17 weeks, straw bedded with the ability to range freely. “They are not confined.”
That was and remains the main business focus, however with the unpleasant wakeup call COVID provided, the Doans elected to pivot into the potential value-added opportunities direct market and farmgate sales offered. The equation is far from as simple as growing additional birds. Due to the supply management system turkeys are grown and sold in Canada under, the birds on the farm are, in effect, already sold.
“I have to make something in addition to that,” Clair explained. “We’ll never be large scale,” he continued, “so if you want to be sustainable, in our opinion, you have to add value for the future.”
Additionally, it’s not as simple as rounding up X number of birds from the heavy tom stream. Targetting the local, seasonal market meant adding a number of hens, hitting a weight goal of between five and ten kilograms at Christmas and Thanksgiving, for example.
“A smaller bird, conducive for a family to eat.”
The Doan Family Turkey approach was to source a local processor, offering birds seasonally around those two holidays.
“And frozen whole birds throughout the whole year for those who are interested.
“Turkey is a niche product, there is a seasonality to it,” he added. “But people are looking for lean protein year round.”
Despite the undeniable challenges of integrating a separate stream of lighter hens into majority heavy tom production, Clair admits with the smile that growing the birds is the easy part. “Dealing with consumers is different than growing a product.”
Kathryn has taken point on marketing, a broad initiative incorporating social media, a dedicated Facebook page and Instagram account, along with community word of mouth. They also participated in FarmFood360, a virtual tour of turkey farming practices which offers the educational component and transparency consumers are increasingly seeking, while emphasizing farms are typically very much family operations.
COVID did bring consumer appreciation for locally produced food to the fore says Clair, along with the desire to know where and how it is produced. “That was very, very clear.”
Doan Family Turkey sold 150 birds in its first year of direct marketing with that number doubling last year, with plans to hopefully double again this year. A lot of their customers were from nearby Norwich or the surrounding environs, ‘people we know,’ however more than they may have expected have proven willing to make a drive. “And they’re looking to make those connections.”
Theirs is anything but a get rich quick scheme, and in fact an additional commitment over and above Clair’s demanding position as Associate Vice President with National Bank’s agricultural division, and Kathryn’s equally-busy role in HR and recruitment with Agcareers.com. However, it’s a commitment both are willing to make for their four children, Carymn, Sophia, Charlotte and Adele, who are already contributing to the effort through knowledgeable and committed time and presence. “We know it will take years to build, but this is a thing we are starting for our daughters,” Clair summed up.
“I think it’s a matter of finding the balance between building for the future and involving members of your family, should they choose or wish to make farming part of their future. It’s not without risk, but at the end, it’s very satisfying building something together.”