Talking Turkey with Baffoni's Poultry Farm

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Photo of turkeys with white bodies and red heads standing amidst bales of hay. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image, with text that reads "Rhody Radio" and an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Nicolette Baffoni: You're listening to Rhody Radio. Rhody Island Library Radio online.

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I'm Nicolette Baffoni, the Library Development Manager at the office of Library & Information Services. If I asked you to close your eyes and picture fresh local eggs from a farmer's market, what color are they? There's a very good chance that if you're from Rhode Island or the greater New England area, you would imagine brown. It turns out there is a reason why those of us from this part of the world tend to think this, even though there's actually no difference between the egg inside a white shell or a brown shell. In the late 1800s, Little Compton farmers crossed different chicken breeds looking to engineer a healthy and hearty bird that would also produce a lot of eggs.

They were successful and the Rhode Island Red chicken was born. This helped Little Compton develop as a thriving center for poultry farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To this day, Rhode Island Reds and their crossbreeds remain popular with poultry farmers all around the world because they are excellent egg producers. Notably, they produce brown eggs, almost certainly accounting for the average Rhode Islander's association between brown and local eggs. We take our Rhode Island Reds seriously here. You can visit the Rhode Island Red Monument in Little Compton to see the historic birthplace of the iconic chicken.

In 1954, Rhode Island Governor Dennis J. Roberts designated the Rhode Island Red the official state bird declaring that it has become the symbol of Rhode Islanders all over the world. Rhode Island chickens may have a global reach, but one piece of Rhode Island's poultry history is very close to home for me. My family has been raising chickens, including Rhode Island Reds, at Baffoni's Poultry Farm in Johnston for 86 years. To celebrate Thanksgiving week, a week when our minds are more than usually turned toward poultry, I sat down with my Father Joe Baffoni [00:02:00] to talk about the farm and what it has been like to operate a family business across nearly a century.

Joe Baffoni: I'm Joe Baffoni. I'm one of the Baffoni's from Baffoni's Poultry Farm, where my grandfather started in 1935 and built up with his sons, and now I'm like third generation. Now we even got fourth generation over there working. We supply poultry and eggs for the area. We raise all our own natural and we process and package all our own chicken and eggs.

Nicolette: Do you know anything else about when the farm was founded?

Joe Baffoni: Well, it was 1935. Things were tough. What it was was, they were in the midst of a depression. When they had the property and his wife, Palmina, and my grandfather, Giuseppe, they decided to raise some chickens and started a business. He had six small buildings that they built in the back of the farm and they raised broilers and they would for people who would come to the farm and they would also-- the same thing with the eggs. A good business to have when you're in a bad time. You never had to worry about eating. He always had gardens and a few apple fruit trees and things. That's how it started.

Nicolette: You said that the farm processes chicken, what does that mean?

Joe: What we do when we process chickens, we clean them cut them up, and they ice them. We're federally inspected. They look at every single chicken as they come around the line. Then they pull them out of the tanks once they chilled. Then they cut them up to whatever our customers want.

Nicolette: Where do you sell the chicken and the eggs?

Joe: All in the local area. We do a lot right out the door. We have a little store at the farm which we're expanding a little right now. We just made the store a little bigger, a necessity, someone drove to the front of it. We took advantage of that [00:04:00] and we're going to expand the store a little bit but we do about half our business right out the front door. People come, buy whatever they like.

Nicolette: You sell to restaurants and stores?

Joe: We do a lot of restaurant business, a lot of small meat markets. A lot of Latino customers as well over in Providence, a lot of small meat markets that they serve as their neighborhoods. We sell a lot to them as well.

Nicolette: What was it like to grow up on a farm?

Joe: Oh, it was different then because we were smaller back then. It was struggling years, '70s and '80s. That's when I grew up. When I was a kid, all my brothers and sisters we all had chores we did. When we would come home from school, for instance, we would grade the eggs. They ran the business with-- there were four brothers. My father and my three uncles ran the business that would be Albert, Arthur, Yugo, and Donald. Then they hired help but not like we have today. They had a couple of part-timers, a couple of full-timers at work with them, but for the most part, they ran it themselves and the family helped out as well, the kids.

It was a goof. We would have to run home from school, pack the eggs, grade the eggs, then I would have to go back for basketball practice or baseball practice. Sometimes I'd have to go to practice, then come home and do chores but we worked it out. It was all good. We had to finish. It wasn't like, you could just say, "Hey, I'm going to call in sick." It's your father's business. He knew where you are, he knew what you were doing. If you left the job undone, forget it. You were doomed. It was responsibility that was taught to us at a young age.

Nicolette: Did you feel like it was a happy place to grow up?

Joe: It was happy. I mean, I enjoyed it. When I was little I didn't want to go to school. I wanted to stay on the farm [00:06:00] with my uncles because I was the fifth of six kids and my mother exiled me to the back and I said, "That's it." Sent him out to the back and my uncles took me with them. When it's time to go to school, I didn't want to go to school. I enjoyed being with my uncles in the farm.

Nicolette: I feel like I heard a story about an owl. Did an owl get inside of the chicken coops? Is that a thing that happens regularly?

Joe: Yes, this happened a couple of times now. The last owl, it was actually a year ago, not quite, six months ago. He got in the coop and they got him with a fishing net.

Nicolette: A fishing net.

Joe: A fishing net they got him. One other time we donated one to the museum. We asked the State, "There's a big barn owl, got in here and killed about six hens." My brother called the State and said, "You come and get this owl out of our chicken coop." We knew that the owl will probably be protected. They told us, "No, no go ahead and shoot it." Out of fear that we would get hurt handling it when it's alive. They can be very dangerous with their talons. They instructed us to wrap it up in a newspaper and put it in the freezer. Then when they came to pick it up, they were going to donate it to a museum. They wanted us to pay a couple of dollars to say it was donated by Baffoni's Poultry Farm. We said, "That's okay, you can just take the owl."

Nicolette: Nice. Is it a local museum? Can I go visit that owl?

Joe: I don't know where the owl ended up. We gave it to them.

Nicolette: Any fun facts about chickens or turkeys or poultry farming that you think people might be interested in hearing?

Joe: The thing about raising chickens, is everyone thinks it's so easy. You just get the chickens, you throw them some feed and they grow. What it is, is it actually, is a lot of knowledge that you have to have to be able to raise a flock of chickens to make sure that they're happy, that they've got [00:08:00] enough room, that they've got everything they need. You have to walk through a couple of times a day to make sure the litter or water didn't break. You have to also make sure that they don't get sick. That they don't have a cold or they have a cough and you take appropriate actions.

We do custom dress at the farm. A lot of people start out with 100 chickens and end up bringing us 40 because they don't really know what they're doing and they don't know the appropriate actions to take when the chickens need to be cared for. They don't know the treatments that they need. They don't identify it before it's too late. Everyone thinks they can just raise birds. It's not that easy. If everyone can do it, they would and it's not that easy.

Nicolette: Do you have advice for people who want to raise chickens in their backyard?

Joe: The biggest thing is to make sure the litter is dry, make sure that they're fed all the time, and they always have water. Those things will go a long way. They have to have good ventilation, they have to be able to walk around. There has to be enough room. You can't just put them on a small coop. You got to have a little bit of walkway for them. For every so many chickens, you got to have so many square foot of 10.

Nicolette: I don't know if this is true, people say turkeys are really stupid.

Joe: Turkeys are curious, I wouldn't call them stupid. Everyone gives them a bum rap. Now they can walk into the door, they'll come in to see what you're going to bring them. They know that they get fed when you come to that door. When you go through the pen of turkeys or the porch of turkeys then it's a huge porch, they come running all to the end and they all crowd up and they bounce out again. They bounce into you like they're large and in charge but they're just looking to see what you're bringing them in. One of their favorite things is Swiss chard from the garden.

They love it. What happens is I grow a couple of extra rows of Swiss chard. I'll go down the row and I'll pick it. Bring a box and throw it in and they love fighting [00:10:00] over the stems. They go running through. It's like an event for them.

Nicolette: You guys sell a lot of turkeys this time of year, about how many turkeys do you usually sell?

Joe: Well, around Thanksgiving, around 1,200 turkeys was what we're up to. It's interesting the farm since the pandemic happened, the business went crazy. We had customers that were afraid they couldn't get meat or get chicken or-- started showing up at the farm. Then to their surprise, they get this fresh local chicken, and now their customers. We gained a lot of business because of the pandemic. The other thing that brought us a lot of business in the last 10 years I would say, was the farm-to-table that trended. Everybody wanted the farm-to-table experience.

Our business, which in the '70s and '80s, our fathers worked so hard, and they didn't have that much help and then they got by and it always made a living for all four families. It was penny to pound. They were dealing with margins, if not, it was short money. Now, we're dealing with the same thing but we're doing it with a larger scale. We're doing in one day, what they used to kill in one a week. The business has basically grown in the last 10 years for those reasons and now, it got so busy that during COVID, family members of fourth generation now have taken over and doing the work. We're overseeing it. Now I'm getting a little old to handle those turkeys. It's like a real stress test every year. They're the ones doing the heavy lifting right now.

Nicolette: Yes, that's my next question. What's it like at the farm leading up to Thanks?

Joe: Yes, right now, it's hectic. They sold out like three weeks ago. At this point, we're going to make sure all our customers, all the people that ordered, they get what they ordered and the best [00:12:00] we can. They do have the feathers on when we take the orders but we do estimate the sizes. We know approximately how many big orders we can take and how many of each size. It's up to the young guys now. They're leading the charge. We've got a lot of other help now on the farm. It wasn't like before, we'd be out there till two in the morning, sometimes the week before the holiday. They get done in reasonable hours, but they have a lot more help. They do do the job, just like we did when we were their age and God bless them. I'm glad that there are.

Nicolette: You used to take vacation time from your [crosstalk]. Yes, you had a full-time job.

Joe: I had a full-time job. I always worked in the defenses. I worked for Raytheon in it. Then I would come every year, I would take my vacation the week before Thanksgiving. Actually, a week and a half before Thanksgiving so that I could help the family dress out all the birds, fill out all the orders and it's a big time for us, Thanksgiving. Now we still continue to do all our regular business and do the turkeys. Without all the help that we do have, we have well over 20 employees there. I have a great crew. They worked all the way through the pandemic. They were fantastic through COVID and they all got vaccinated and they're all working hard. Anyway, hopefully, we have a healthy Thanksgiving.

Nicolette: Yes. All right. Now I'm going to ask some questions about cooking and eating. If somebody were to buy a fresh turkey versus a frozen turkey, what should people know going into that cooking experience?

Joe: A fresh turkey, sometimes people will tend to overcook them, they cook up fast. If they're unstuffed, a turkey 12 to 15 minutes a pound. Some of the cookbooks you read, [00:14:00] they'll say 20 minutes a pound. You cook a fresh turkey 20 minutes a pound, you'll dry it out, there'll be no moisture left in it. You got to remember it's never been frozen. You're going to just give it a rinse, put your favorite seasoning to it. When you put it in the oven. I would put it breast side down for the first couple of three hours for at least half the time so if you're doing a 13 or 14-pound turkey, I'd go three hours or two and a half hours with the breast side down maybe an hour with the legs up.

I would cover the drumsticks so you don't dry the drumsticks out with aluminum foil and inside the thigh sockets 185 with a thermometer. If you're measuring the very center or the thickest part of the breast, you will go 160 but when you pull it out of the oven, you would leave it at least a half hour before you carve it so that the juices resend back into the meat and you have a nice juicy bird.

Nicolette: Thanks. You don't need turkey on Thanksgiving, do you?

Joe: If I go to my sisters' for together depends who we have for Thanksgiving. I prefer a capon. I like a big chicken. We have those at the farm. We raise a bunch of those for the holiday as well. We do sell a lot but yes, I prefer a 12-pound capon or a 10-pound capon, depend how many people we are. Yes, I like chicken. I prefer chicken. I like the turkey leftover in a sandwich.

Nicolette: Anything else you want to say to wrap it up, give it a sense of closing?

Joe: I would say one thing, that we are the place where you can get fresh poultry, raised naturally and know that it's federally inspected, that the quality it's as good as any premium chicken you can buy. That was basically our mission statement was to be the supplier of the best poultry [00:16:00] in the state of Rhode Island and my opinion of course is kind of biased-

Nicolette: Mine too.

Joe: -but in my opinion-- not my opinion, I should say the facts are that we do raise our own poultry. We have our own feed program. It's all natural and no antibiotics. We never used antibiotics and we've been doing it for years and we've got a winning recipe there. We know how to raise the chickens, we know how to dress them, we know how to bring them to you as fresh as possible. You go to the farm, the oldest that chicken is going to be is a couple of days. Go to the market. You can guess how old that is.

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Nicolette: Baffonis Poultry Farm is all sold out of turkeys for this Thanksgiving, but you can still get fresh chicken and eggs and preorder a Christmas turkey. They are located on Greenville Avenue in Johnston. To learn more about Rhode Island Reds, check out the links in the show notes. If you're looking for more local farms in your neck of the woods Farm Fresh Rhode Island has a pretty comprehensive listing of local farms across the state, also available in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening and have a great Thanksgiving from the Rhody Radio team.