With the market for all-natural foods still showing steady growth, more and more companies are making inroads into the market. Those companies that started in the market from the very beginning, however, are deserving of a little special recognition. Little did they know that shopping at a Whole Foods would come to be considered a status symbol, or that the phrase “locally grown” would become a catchphrase.

One of the companies that has embraced all-natural meat products from the beginning is Koch’s Turkey Farm, located in Tamaqua, Pa. The Koch family has been involved in the turkey raising business for three generations. Its entry into the natural market 15 years ago came about almost by accident, says Duane Koch, president and son of Lowell Koch, the company’s founder.

“It was back in the time with so much publicity over mad cow disease in Europe, and we started getting questions from our customers about if we were using animal byproducts,” he says. Eventually, the company fielded so many questions from concerned customers that it looked into raising turkeys on an all-vegetarian diet and without antibiotics or growth hormones. The initial response from the nutritionists was not encouraging.

“Most of them has never dealt with it or weren’t enthusiastic about the idea, saying that it would take a lot longer to get to the same weight, and it would cost quite a bit,” Koch says.

At the time, the company was raising all of its own birds, and after several trials, it became successful at raising vegetarian-fed, antibiotic-free turkeys. When the U.S. government decided to ban animal byproducts for ruminant animals, it was ready to make the conversion over to a natural product. One of the first customers to understand and appreciate the company’s efforts was Whole Foods. The retailer had been selling Koch’s turkeys in its North Carolina stores, but it soon expanded the distribution through the mid-Atlantic region. Subsequently, the company went through a radical change, not only in products but in customers.

“Our customer base, who we were selling to at the time, was only interested in commodity prices that were priced [right],” Koch explains. “Over the next four years, we basically changed almost our entire customer base, and we went from a 90-percent frozen company on a year-round basis to a 90-percent fresh company.”

Five years ago, the company also entered into the organic foods market. It had wanted to be in that market for a couple of years prior to that, but it was waiting for federal guidelines on organic products to be available and put all companies on the same playing field.

“With no national guidelines, you could have someone selling [products] with half their feed being organic and the rest regular,” he says.

The move to natural products has paid off, in the way of 20 percent average annual growth. The company has also added on a network of growers, saving the turkeys that the Koch family raises for the holiday (Thanksgiving and Christmas) rush. In total, Koch’s harvests and processes about 750,000 turkeys annually, with approximately 100,000 during the holiday season.


Turkey nuggets

Lowell Koch’s children — Duane, Barbara, Beth and Pam — have joined him in the business that he founded 55 years ago. With all the company’s growth, it still operates very much like a custom slaughterer and processor. Almost all of the evisceration, cutting and packaging steps are done by hand.

The natural and organic turkey market has caught the eye of some larger competitors, which is a concern, Koch says. Most of the company’s evisceration, cutting and packaging operations are done by hand, so in terms of volume, it can’t produce at the level of the fully automated, large-volume processors. However, it does have a quality edge by having so many people inspecting the product as it moves through the company’s facility, he points out.

“Everything is hands-on, and we have a lot of quality control checkpoints, so that our customers don’t have to worry about bone chips or different quality issues,” Koch explains. The company’s versatility is a strong selling point as well.

“We get orders every week for so many things that we do, and we’re small and can quickly adapt to that and make the orders,” he adds.

Koch’s Turkey Farm offers an impressive array of products, including lunch meat, bacon, ham steak and nitrate-free smoked breast pieces, drums and wings. It offers marinated tenderloins and a line of roasts in various sizes. The lunch meat is sold natural or organic and is available in three flavors — oven roasted, smoked and vanilla pepper.

One of the company’s biggest successes has been turkey nuggets, which it introduced at the start of the year. Sold as Lil’ Gobblers Turkey Bites in natural and organic varieties, they have bridged the gap between children’s love of chicken nuggets and parents’ desire to serve healthy meals. The Turkey Bites are currently sold in Whole Foods stores but soon will be added to other retail stores.

“To be honest, I didn’t know if it would work,” Koch says. “I thought the meat might be dry, but they came out good.” One of the keys to the product’s success has been the quality of the meat. The Turkey Bites are made out of the tenderloin.

“That’s the best part of the turkey, and it’s very labor intensive to get that meat,” he says. “We hand cut the meat, so the pieces aren’t all the same size, unlike pieces that are fabricated out of a mold.”

The products use two different breading recipes to provide unique taste experiences. The natural, antibiotic-free nugget has a traditional breading, while the organic variety has a more Southern-style taste. Rather than being fully cooked, both products are flash-fried and frozen for the best taste.

The Tamaqua facility is strictly a raw plant, so all breading, smoking and other further processing operations are done elsewhere.

“From a government standpoint, we’d rather have people that make further processed items, and that’s all they do, for food safety [issues] like Listeria,” Koch explains. The cost of putting in ovens, smokehouses and breading lines is also a factor. Koch says his company has been fortunate in having long-term partnerships with several local processors in order to prepare the further processed items.


Survival of the small farms

Along with its two family farms, Koch’s has 22 contract associates to supply the company with turkeys. Koch supplies them with everything except for the turkey houses and the labor. The company has its own feed mill for its holiday turkeys and the farmers in the immediate vicinity, and it contracts with other mills to provide the same recipe for the rest. Koch’s does not use a least-cost formulation, so the feed formula does not change, even with fluctuating prices of corn and other items.

It has also taken several steps to minimize risk of a mass illness among its birds, and the farms are all spread out over a large area.

“We don’t take any farms on if there are any other poultry operations within three miles of them, for biosecurity,” Koch says. “We want isolated farms, so we know we have a really good chance of having a high success rate growing without antibiotics.” Each farm loads its own turkeys instead of having a company crew going from one farm to the next, possibly spreading disease.

As one of the last remaining family farms going up against large, commodity processors, Koch acknowledges that the company cannot match its competitors dollar for dollar. One of its keys for long-term success is to connect with customers who find value in the company’s background and its attention to detail. Koch’s Turkey Farm has scored very well in the third-party audits through Whole Foods and other customers, particularly in terms of animal welfare. That success rate has helped win the company new converts. Koch says that almost every time he went to a Whole Foods store to demonstrate the product, he ended up selling turkey to a vegetarian.

“They thought all turkeys were raised in terrible conditions and abused,” Koch explains. While there are no national standards for how much space to give an organic turkey, Koch’s and its growers follow the strict guidelines set forth by the Pennsylvania Certified Organic agency.

“The birds have lots of room,” Koch says. “For our ABF (antibiotic-free) turkeys, we give them almost as much space as we do our organics.

“Our future success,” he adds, “is going to hinge on people who care about quality and are willing to pay a little more for higher quality, and want a unique product from a family farm rather than a mass-produced product that everyone else is going to have.”