A turkey comeback at Calverton farm


Youngsters in passing cars try to count them. The smallest ones wave from their car seats. Occasionally their parents glance to take in the vista of hundreds of snow-white turkeys gamboling in the grass at Miloski's Poultry Farms in Calverton.

This time of year, when cooks are discussing holiday favorites, the 46-year-old turkey farm on Route 25 provides more than just a pastoral backdrop. After an electrical fire in July destroyed a barn housing a thousand baby turkeys, temporarily suspending the farm's full operation, the Miloski family is back in business with a current flock of nearly 3,000 birds at the 25-acre site.

For several weeks the Miloskis have been working 14-hour days, processing their free-range grass- and grain-fed gobblers for Thanksgiving dinner.

Owner Mark Miloski credits the farm's restoration to the outpouring of community support.

"We had so many people who helped us, or did us favors. Everyone pulled together after fire departments from Wading River and Riverhead put out the blaze," he said. "When we had a cleanup, I asked a couple of friends, and all of a sudden we had 30 people show up to help."

In Suffolk County, farms occupy a treasured place in an otherwise suburban landscape.

"I think people want to see the farms keep going," Mr. Miloski said. "People help farmers more than other businesses because they want to see farms survive. They like to see the animals running around, and they want to see country living rather than just strip malls."

Miloski's is one of a handful of poultry farms on Eastern Long Island -- a substantial decrease from the heyday of duck farming 50 or so years ago.

In the mid to late 1970s, 27 duck farms, located primarily in Riverhead, Aquebogue and Jamesport, supplied roughly 5 million Pekin ducks to gourmet restaurants on the island and New York City, according to records from Cornell Cooperative Extension. Today, Corwin family-owned Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue produces nearly a million ducks for the wholesale market; Jurgielewicz Duck Farm in Moriches also raises a substantial flock. But there are only one or two other commercial duck farmers raising the highly prized gourmet variety on Eastern Long Island, notes Dale Moyer, agricultural program director at Cornell.

Most of the remaining poultry farms are comparatively small-scale operations that sell directly to consumers who learn about the farm by driving by or word-of-mouth, Mr. Moyer explains. The current ranks of poultry farmers include David Wines, who runs a small-scale chicken farm on Sound Avenue in Riverhead, selling chicken eggs.

The only other local turkey farmer Mr. Moyer can think of is former potato-grower Arthur Ludlow and his wife, Stacey, who raise a few hundred gobblers in Mecox on the South Fork, and have added dairy cows this year to diversify.

These small farmers cater to niche markets, Mr. Moyer said. Competing on the wholesale level is difficult for Long Island farmers because it's more cost-effective to raise poultry in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, where grain is cheaper and more plentiful.

"The local niche markets are where local farmers can make a profit raising birds, by cutting out the middleman," he said.

For the Miloskis, raising turkeys is part of a family tradition. Mr. Miloski's father, Will, started a duck farm on River Road in Calverton in 1936, and today the entire family, including Mr. Miloski's father and two children, are involved in the turkey business.

Every year, they drive a small truck to Pennsylvania, where they meet one that has driven from Virginia, delivering day-old turkey chicks. Until the babies are two weeks old, the Miloskis keep them in a barn under brooders -- low gas heaters -- which maintain an ambient temperature of 90 to 100 degrees.

From two to four weeks, the young turkeys live in another building kept at 84 to 85 degrees. From four to six weeks they live in an unheated barn before moving outside for good. Turkeys reach maturity at 14 to 22 weeks, when they weigh 12 to 30 pounds.

Consumer appetites peak in the cold weather months, especially November and December. To attract customers year-round and cater to a growing interest in healthy, low-fat alternatives, the Miloski family began carrying more exotic meats in the late 1980s.

Today, their quaint roadside store adjacent to turkey pens and barns sells frozen cuts shipped from a specialty wholesaler in California: yak patties from Alaska and kangaroo burgers from Australia, along with elk, bison, llama, wild boar, pheasant, quail, squab (the gourmet word for pigeon), rabbit, duck, ostrich, frog legs, alligator and rattlesnake meat. Prices range from $7.99 per pound for bison to $50 per pound for frozen rattlesnake from Texas. A display near the cash register features ostrich, kangaroo, antelope, wild boar, venison and buffalo jerky for $1.85 a stick.

"We sell them as stocking stuffers and people buy them to ship to servicemen overseas," Mr. Miloski says.

Today, the store also does a brisk trade in duck eggs, and freezers on two walls are filled with Polish specialties in addition to meat: kielbasa, blintzes and pierogies, which Mr. Miloski says are some of the best around.

But the business' anchor remains the turkeys, most of which are sold first-come, first-serve, starting from just before Thanksgiving and through the New Year.

"We see generations of families coming year after year," Mr. Miloski muses. "I have kids who used to sit up on the counter coming in with their own children" to buy Thanksgiving dinner.