Turkey rose to the No. 2 cash crop for South Carolina last year, when farmers raised 11.5 million birds. Poultry claimed the top spot, even as turkey rose to No. 2 after spending the previous three years at the No. 3 spot.
But if turkeys are so popular in South Carolina – the sheer volume of birds ranks the state eighth nationally – why not raise the kind one might find at a family feast?
“All that we grow are the male turkeys,” said Ron Prestage, of Prestage Farms in Kershaw County. It’s the state’s chief turkey grower and supplies nearly 75 percent of the turkey processed by Louis Rich in Newberry, S.C. Their meat is headed for ready-to-eat products such as Lunchables and sandwich meat, not Thanksgiving tables.
“The reason is the plant itself is much more efficient if you’re killing the same sized turkey all the time,” said Prestage, a veterinarian. “There’s a huge difference in the sizes of hens and toms.”
The company’s hen processing plant in St. Pauls, N.C., specializes in female turkeys, about half of which become the centerpieces of Thanksgiving dinners, he said.
“The turkeys we grow in South Carolina are too big to fit in the oven,” said Prestage, adding that males can weigh more than 40 pounds.
He said another company, Circle S, sells “heavy toms,” but his operation is by far the state’s largest. The two companies are known as integrators, which means they contract with producers to raise the turkeys. And when the birds reach the right size and age, Prestage and Circle S coordinate the processing.
South Carolina has a few independent producers who sell whole birds on a very limited basis. But in general, Thanksgiving turkeys do not come from South Carolina, according to the state’s agriculture department.
At least not the commercial birds.
Even if state residents aren’t purchasing South Carolina birds for their holiday feast, they’re happy to chase them down in the woods. Increasingly so.
South Carolina’s wild turkey harvest surged 20 percent this spring to 21,550 birds.
The state Department of Natural Resources estimates that the 40,000 spring turkey hunters account for more than $30 million in economic activity.
The wild-turkey season runs from April 1 through May 1, but DNR spokesman Brett Witt said these birds are prime Thanksgiving Day fare.
“As long as it was properly dressed and stored, it should turn out delicious,” he said.