Turkey Tales: New Turkey Farm in Kent County
By Tracey F. Johns | Photos by Pamela L. Cowart-Rickman
J.B. Debnam, with his niece, Ellie, feeds ground corn to the free-range turkeys on his farm.
An Eastern Shore Thanksgiving traditionally comes with the simpler things in life, including fall’s changing colors and the sounds of Canada geese intermittently filling the crisp, autumn air. It is a rousing day for the senses—especially with the delicious aromas of a fresh turkey roasting in the oven. The day for some may include an early morning hunting with friends, a gathering with family (in whatever form that will take with COVID this year), or time simply spent giving gratitude more space.
The Eastern Shore’s strong agricultural roots also play an important role in the traditional meal for Thanksgiving, with our rural communities adopting today’s popular farm-to-table movement centuries ago. Locals appreciate knowing the farmers who bring the day’s bounties to our tables and kitchens, and this appreciation dates back to when Eastern Shore farms produced enough fruits and vegetables to help feed the entirety of an early America.
Today’s locals and guests are exposed to many corn, soybean, and wheat fields as we take honor or frustration in learning to patiently wait behind a combine while traveling a country road. Eastern Shore “from here’s” and “come here’s” are also passionate about shopping our local markets and farms, seeking the freshest ingredients from the farmers we know who grow our peaches and tomatoes, catch our seafood and fish, and raise our turkeys.
Melitota Turkeys of Great Oak, Md. is helping to bring local, pasture-raised turkeys to tables this Thanksgiving through the company’s fifth-generation, Eastern Shore agriculture roots. Farming is a long-standing tradition for the Debnam family, who today farm more than 1,800 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans throughout Kent, Queen Anne’s, and Cecil Counties. The turkey farm’s namesake comes from its rural location near Chestertown and Fairlee, Md.
The Debnams sought to fill an unmet need for pasture-raised fresh turkeys by raising nearly 500 turkeys at their farm beginning this past June. The turkeys are free-range, and antibiotic-free, and are available for online ordering before the holiday and farm pick-up during the week leading up to Thanksgiving.
J.B. Debnam, 51, takes the lead running Melitota Turkeys with his father Breck Debnam, 76. He says he grew up on the farm and feels his family continues in farming and agriculture-related businesses because it is in their blood. All three of J.B.’s children work in the agriculture field in locations throughout the country. J.B.’s brother Barney also works in agriculture with Microsoft on the west coast. J.B.’s niece Ellie helps care for the turkeys and during harvest time, and J.B.’s daughter Caroline manages the farm’s social media and website. Debnam says his youngest son, Wyatt, has shown the most interest in carrying on running and managing the crop farm.
Bottom Left: Ellie, J.B. and Breck supervise the day to day operations at Melitota Farm along with son Wyatt and daughter Caroline. Bottom Right: Breck shows the ground corn mixture that is feed for the turkeys
The process of farming turkeys in time for Thanksgiving begins with purchasing chicks—or turkey poults—that are born in the last week of June, and raising them until they grow to market weight through November. The COVID pandemic brought challenges to locally sourced chicks this year, with Melitota Farms traveling to western Virginia to pick up 500 turkey chicks within hours of them hatching. Debnam says baby turkeys were scarce this year because the public was purchasing and consuming the inventory before growers could secure the chicks.
The chicks were kept warm during the long ride back to the Eastern Shore, then spent time brooding in a room in the farm’s barn, where they remained close together and under heat until their feathers arrived. The turkey chicks are then moved into the larger converted dairy barn, where a previous farm owner once milked cows.
The birds have free-choice of their water and feed, with their feed comprised of corn harvested from the farm, along with other ingredients like soybean meal provided by Delmarva Feed. The Debnams fill the feed hoppers four times a day, while the chicks enjoy free range of more than an acre of land each day. The birds stay inside at night to protect them from predators.
Turkeys grow to their 16 to 20-pound market-weight over five-months, before being taken to a local processing facility. The birds are then processed, cleaned, and packaged in a clear plastic bag, with the giblets in the cavity and the bird ready to go in the oven once picked up from the farm.
Melitota Turkeys markets directly to the consumer during only one week of sales, with pre-orders taken each season up until Thanksgiving Day. Debnam says they are one of a very few fresh-market turkey farms on the Eastern Shore, with Melitota drawing individuals, bed and breakfasts, and farm-to-table restaurants from around the Mid-Shore area and beyond. He says they all come with one thing in common—a commitment to using locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients as part of their Thanksgiving meal traditions.
Debnam says the greatest challenge in raising turkeys is keeping them healthy for the first fourteen days. “They have a pecking order, and some may starve out if they can’t get to the feed. So farm workers need to monitor around the clock and help bring the chicks to the feed pans when necessary.”
He says heat has not been an issue for the birds because the old dairy barn is concrete and the breeze blows right through. Plenty of shade trees on the farm provide shade outside for the turkeys also.
“These turkeys live an exceptional life, without any want or need,” says Debnam.
The greatest reward to turkey farming for Debnam is giving the public an opportunity to get on the farm to see where their food comes from. While the barn is not open to the public, the location of the farm on Great Oak Landing Road makes it easy for boaters heading to the nearby marina and others to check in on the birds.
“Whether it’s teaching them about corn or turkeys, the people learn all about this when they come to pick up their turkeys, or even while visiting our website,” says Debnam.
“We bring people closer to the family farm experience They come to meet the faces behind their food,” says Debnam. “Our customers know where their bird came from, and they trust they are getting the highest quality turkey on their table this Thanksgiving.”
As for the taste of a farm-fresh turkey, Debnam says there’s nothing like it, which is why the market exists for the higher-priced birds.
“The tenderness and juiciness are totally different than with a frozen turkey. These birds come from such a wholesome origin, grown with love and prepared with grit.”
Debnam says they begin planning for the next season of raising turkeys on Thanksgiving Day when ideas are fresh in their minds on ways to improve processes and more. He says they plan to increase the annual harvest to 750 turkeys over the next five years, with more about the farm at melitotaturkeys.com.
Melitota Turkeys of Great Oak, Md.
22589 Great Oak Landing Rd Chestertown, MD 21620 443-377-4599
All fresh turkeys can be picked up during the hours of 8am to 6pm on November 24th and 25th at the farm.