To hear Chris Bohrer tell it, the 20,000 turkeys that flock to Maple Lawn Farms in Fulton have it made in the shade.
Hey, what's not to like? They have free run of the barnyard and gobble to their little hearts’ content, feasting on a vitamin-and-mineral-rich diet of corn, soybeans, and wheat. Still, while the complimentary room and board are nice, and the bucolic view terrific, the guests don’t get to stay long.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, loyal customers continue the decades-old tradition of lining up at the lush, rolling spread in southwest Howard County, eager to plunk down good money for a chance to have one of these all-natural beauties grace their holiday table.
"They're fed no antibiotics, no hormones," declares Bohrer, the plant manager and son-in-law of Maple Lawn owner Gene Iager.
He says the reason these turkeys are noticeably better tasting "has to do with the stress-free environment here. They're slaughtered here, not trucked anywhere else and slaughtered."
Maple Lawn and Fulton are practically interchangeable terms. It was Iager's great-great-grandfather, Henry, who emigrated from Germany in 1839, snapping up the original 108 acres for $225.
He quickly settled in and began milking cows and raising crops. Over the years, the farm grew and grew—until it shrank a decade ago, when part was sold off for the sprawling development of high-priced homes and tony shops and restaurants also known as Maple Lawn.
The 400 to 500 acres the family owns today, says Iager, include Holstein cows, whose milk is sold to Safeway and Giant, as well as the turkey operation, which was begun in 1938 by Iager's parents, Ellsworth and Mary Elizabeth.
"It's been going on and on," Iager says, the pride evident in his authoritative baritone. "It's a tradition, a legacy."
It’s also a big hit with retail grocers like Roots, Whole Foods, and Harris Teeter.
Says Andy Craig, general manager of the Roots in nearby Clarksville, "The farm is an institution. There's really nothing else like it in Maryland. We wanted to get [turkeys to sell from] someone local and we wanted to get someone we trusted. The response has been great."
It's the Monday before Thanksgiving, a crisp, invigorating afternoon. The cars coming in and out of the farm, just south of Columbia, are many, as Maple Lawn will sell 75 percent of its turkeys during this part of the season.
The sweet air is energized with a kind of mission-critical anticipation as friends and acquaintances swap warm greetings. Like neighbors over the backyard fence comparing the sizes of their flat-screen TVs, these folks compare their birds’ weights.
A young woman driving a Toyota Camry displays a 24-pound hen, while a guy in a Dodge Caravan taps the plastic wrap on his tom, which tips the scales at a whopping 39 pounds.
Rushing out of the pick-up room with her four-legged treasure is Marianne Kyriakos of Silver Spring. A teaching assistant at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Kyriakos pops the trunk of her Volvo while grasping a recipe she’s just gotten from someone she hasn't seen in a decade.
"Coming here has become a holiday tradition for our family,” she says. “For years, we endured the typical wait in long lines at the grocery store to get our frozen bird for Thanksgiving. But this is so much more festive! Our guests can't wait for it to come out of the oven."
Through the typical consumer's lens, perhaps, the business of choosing, preparing, and savoring a Maple Lawn turkey is as reflexive as switching on the oven. Truth be told, the process—from cradle to grave, so to speak—is long, complicated, and requires the hard work of dozens of dedicated people.