JAMES MADISON UNIVERSITY
SHENANDOAH VALLEY ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Oral History Interview
William T. Burruss
By Jessica F. Woodard
7137 Green Hill Road
(home of interviewee)
March 5, 2007
JAMES MADISON UNIVERSITY:
SHENANDOAH VALLEY ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
General topic of interview: This interview covered basic changes and aspects of poultry farming
throughout the interviewee‘s career. It covers a twenty year span and includes work with two
separate companies the interviewee was involved with.
NARRATOR: William T. Burruss
DATE: March 5, 2007
INTERVIEWER: Jessica F. Woodard
PLACE: 7137 Green Hill Road
Spouse: Shelby Burruss
The interviewee of this interview is William T. Burruss. He worked as a turkey farmer
for about twenty years, during the eighties and nineties. Before becoming a farmer, he worked
with the highway department. He also raised cattle during his career in the highway department,
as well as in the poultry business. During his career as a poultry farmer, he worked under the
supervision of two well known Shenandoah poultry companies, Rocco for most of his career and
Cargill for the last couple of years. About five years ago, he sold his farm to a nearby farmer and
I believe that this interview is very important to those interested in aspects of the poultry
business or in any aspects such as community life, Shenandoah Valley history, and so on. This
interview includes many facets of daily life, including the good parts and the hardships faced by
poultry farmers. It deals with relationships with supervising companies, neighbors, family, and
other area farmers. It talks about the ease of getting into the business, yet the insecurity of a
steady job once into it. The interview also deals greatly with the financial side of the poultry
farming business, including starting loans, improvements loans, and various costs on the sides of
the farmers and the companies. Overall, this interview adds to the perspective of the common
farmer in the Shenandoah Valley.
Virginia Tech – School the interviewee attended between the highway department job and
becoming a poultry farmer
Rocco – Company the interviewee worked under for most of his poultry career; recently joined
with the Rockingham Co-Op
Cargill – Second company the interviewee worked under
Wampler – A competing poultry company
Shenandoah Valley Oral History Project
Transcription of Interview with William T. Burruss
on March 5, 2007 at 7137 Green Hill Road
WB: William T. Burruss (interviewee)
SB: Shelby Burruss (wife of interviewee)
JW: Jessica F. Woodard (interviewer)
JW: W.T. Burruss, do you give me your consent to be interviewed?
WB: Uh, Yes.
JW: Okay. What‘s your full name?
WB: William T.
JW: What‘s your spouse‘s name?
JW: What‘s your age?
WB: You want the truth?
JW: (laughs) Yeah the truth.
WB: Oh, um, sixty-nine.
JW: Okay. What is the place where you live, your address?
SB: 7137 Greenhill Road
WB: (overlapping) 7137 Greenhill Road
JW: Okay. Do you have any children?
JW: And what are their ages?
SB: Forty-eight, forty-four, forty-two
WB: Forty-eight, forty-six, forty-four, and forty-two.
JW: Do you have grandchildren?
WB: Uh, yes.
JW: What are their ages?
WB: You got enough tape for this?
JW: Yeah (laughs) I have about three hours.
WB: We got, uh, one that‘s twenty-two—
WB: One that‘s twenty-three, two that are eighteen—
SB: Then uh—
WB: Two or three—
SB: There‘s a twelve year old, there are three eleven year olds—
WB: A ten year old
SB: A ten year old, and two five year olds.
WB: (laughing) Did you—
JW: I got that. Um, ok, were your parents in the poultry business?
WB: No my dad was in the, he had a feed business.
WB: So I guess, yeah indirectly he had contract chickens.
JW: Okay. So did they work anywhere other than the feed business?
WB: My mother was a nurse at RMH¹ and my dad had a feed business out in Edom, Virginia
which is—(points towards Route 42)
JW: So he supplied feed for growers and farmers?
WB: He had supplied feed for farmers, neighbors around that had small flocks of chicken, hogs,
cows, but he also had contract chickens. He would put the chickens in your chicken house, give
you the feed and the coal to keep them warm and then he would share the profit with you.
JW: Okay. So you said you held other jobs before being a poultry grower?
WB: I went to work for the highway department, worked for thirty years.
JW: Was that your first job?
JW: And then you went to poultry farming directly after that?
WB: Right I went to Tech² for two years. Then I came back and went to work for the highway
department and then thirty years and then I worked fifteen years in poultry.
JW: What was your reason for quitting in the highway department?
WB: Uh, (pause), I guess probably I, uh, stressed out. I had high profile county maintenance and
I thought I‘d get an easy job and get in the poultry…(with emphasis) Wrong.
JW: Were you a grower while you held any other jobs?
JW: What was your reason for starting in poultry, besides you thought it would be easy?
WB: To get rich!
[ all laughing]
JW: To get rich?
WB: Well, absolutely.
JW: Did you ever raise any other livestock?
WB: Yeah I had cattle all the time.
JW: While you were a grower?
WB: Well no, while I was with the highway department and while I was raising poultry.
JW: What happened to your cattle?
WB: I still had them when I sold the farm.
JW: Do you still have them now?
WB: No, I sold the farm.
JW: Did you ever do any other types of farming like crops or anything?
WB: Well, hay. Of course I made hay.
WB: Yeah I had sheep too at one time.
JW: Did you have any initial worries going into the poultry business?
WB: Any worries?
JW: No worries?
WB: Other than I had to borrow a lot of money.
JW: Had to get a lot of loans and stuff?
WB: Yeah. A loan.
JW: A loan?
WB: Like a quarter of a million.
JW: Oh okay and was that for improvements on the—
WB: No. That was to build two turkey houses.
JW: Oh. So you—
WB: The farm was just cattle. And so I built two turkey houses on that land.
JW: And you had to take a loan out for that?
JW: Okay. So you grew turkeys. Did you grow chickens too?
JW: Just turkeys. What kind of jobs were performed while you were in the poultry business?
Like what was a daily schedule like?
WB: With turkeys, depending on whether you‘re raising hens or toms, you start out, you have to
start a flock and we started 13-14,000. Had two houses. And for the first two to three weeks, we
spent the best part of each day in there with them, washing waters, putting out feed in feeders,
and then of course we go automatic when they get so big they can eat. You turn on the automatic
and the work gets a lot less. But the first two to three weeks are pretty hectic. Really. And hot.
Cause you have twenty-four stoves going in this room with these birds in there, and it‘s like
eighty-five degrees in there.
JW: Did this change from the winter months to the summer months?
WB: Not in the starting ends. You have to start them hot. They have to know where the stove is,
because when they get—You have to make the stove—It‘s ninety in the summer, then you have
to make it ninety-five in the stove, because the turkey wants to be warm so he goes to the heat.
So if it‘s hot, you got to make it hotter. So that he will know when it cools off where the stove is.
You have heard about turkeys haven‘t you?
JW: Have I heard about turkeys?
WB: There‘s only one thing dumber than a turkey.
JW: What‘s that?
WB: The guy that grows them.
[ all laughing ]
WB: I mean they really are kinda—(makes facial gestures)
JW: So do you know anyone who grew chickens?
JW: Do you know anyone who grew chickens?
WB: Oh yeah.
JW: Were their experiences better than yours?
WB: Yeah. Chickens, especially now, you just, these automatic feed lines, you just let the feed
run out on the floor, you put paper down, you put the feed right on the floor and they eat it. The
turkeys don‘t do that. Water: They give the drip water for chickens. That‘s the little thing that
hangs down and they peck at it to get water. A turkey can‘t figure that out.
WB: He‘s got to stick his nose in it.
JW: How about when you started in the poultry business? Did a lot change with the feeding and
with the work that went into it from then ‗till when you quit?
WB: Not really.
JW: Does your wife help out?
WB: I imagine. She helped out in the first couple weeks, and anybody else I could get. And I had
a guy hired. But it was really hot and aggravating to start them.
JW: So you always hired a guy?
WB: Well I had a guy hired all the time.
JW: And he was just—
WB: He lived on the farm. My farm was (motions towards back of the house) back here so he
lived in and still lives and works for the guy I sold it to. But he lived in the tenant house there.
He was there all the time.
JW: What was your relationship like with him?
WB: Uh, good. He was a guy with nothing when he came and probably has nothing now, but
he‘s a good dedicated guy. He had five kids, no place to put them, so we had to give him a
house, a place to keep warm. Probably didn‘t pay him enough but—
JW: So when you sold the farm, did he just move?
WB: No, he stayed with the guy I sold the farm to.
JW: Oh okay.
WB: So the guy I sold the farm to just kept him on as a tenant. And he‘s still there and that‘s
been what, four years.
JW: Did your children ever help on the farm?
WB: I had the son-in-laws, not the daughter-in-laws.
JW: What kind of jobs did they do?
WB: Well, one of them was a commander in the navy.
JW: Well I mean on the farm.
SB: On the farm.
WB: Oh, helping in this first two to three weeks start. That‘s when I had to have help. We hand
feed, hand water, wash all the waters every morning. Every day you have to wash them, keep
JW: Do you have any family members in the poultry business or that were in the poultry
JW: What are some of the positive aspects of growing that you encountered?
WB: Well, positive you‘re kinda your own boss, the first three weeks I can‘t think of much
positive. It was pretty rough, the first three weeks. Then after that, a couple hours a day is all I
spent with them unless I had a problem. Then you could do kinda what you wanted to do. Make
hay or go to town or what, just take the day off.
JW: So it‘s the first three weeks of every chick cycle?
JW: And how often was that?
WB: Well we started, in the beginning we were running heavy toms and that was like we got
four flocks a year. So we had four of those a year.
JW: And that was when you first started growing?
WB: Yeah we had, the houses were 624 feet long, and we had 208 feet of them were starting
hens and 416 were growout hens. So we had then like five weeks we‘d move from this house
into this house and start another bunch. (making diagram with hands on table) So we got big
guys down here. So now we got 28,000 turkeys. Fourteen in this end and fourteen if you took—
Each had two houses. So a lot of times you had both ends full. And of course, when you move
you have to wash everything down, clean out all the litter, disinfect everything, put litter back in,
disinfect all your equipment, set everything back up while these big guys are down at the other
end. Then the little guys come in and then you got the—, and then when the big guys go out, it
might be a week or two before you move these down. But you have to clean this end when they
go out. That‘s not got to be as thorough clean and that as disinfecting and cleaning the manure
out and then these guys down and start all over up here.
JW: So would you say it took about three months to—
WB: Depending on hens or toms, but when you‘re raising heavy toms you keep them about
twenty-one weeks so then you‘d probably only get three flocks a year. So it depends on the size
of your bird, how long you keep them. The guy that‘s got it now, they‘re getting ready to go into,
well they just finished the first flock of forty-pound turkeys. And that takes twenty-three or four
JW: So you get a flock of turkeys and they‘re, like it‘s divided into types of turkey?
WB: No. Well, there are different breeds. But this is the house and like I say, a third of it is what
we call the starting end. So you start like 7,000. You got two houses sitting side by side. Then
these guys get five to six weeks old, you open the door, drive them down to this end, clean this,
put 7,000 more up there and you got 7,000 down here. Both houses and it just goes on and on. So
I mean, depending on what you‘re growing. If you‘re growing light toms, then you only keep
them fifteen weeks. So it depends on what the company wants. It‘s kinda hard to explain.
JW: Just different types of turkeys?
WB: Different weights. And of course hens or toms, which is male and female.
JW: So you never grew male and female together?
WB: No, no. Every now and then you‘d have a couple in there and that‘s an interesting story to
JW: Oh is it?
WB: Yeah, you know how nasty you women are?
[ all laughing ]
JW: We‘re nasty?
WB: You ought to see a poor old tom when he gets in there. See they all think they‘re the same
until Mr. Tom starts getting all this fancy stuff on his head. Uh, his days are numbered. They
wipe him out.
JW: Oh do they?
WB: Yeah really.
JW: Is it the same when a female gets in there? They just kill it?
WB: It‘s really kinda wild.
JW: Yeah that‘s crazy. (pause) So what would you say are negative aspects? Besides the first
WB: Smell. Yeah I lost, just now getting back my smell and my taste. See you‘re in so much
ammonia, especially in the grow out end, the big end. Floors get wet and it gets an ammonia in
there and you have to keep curtains up to keep the temperature the same. That ammonia comes
up and burns your eyes. It‘s really uh— And uh, I guess probably disease. That sounds uh—, but
when they get sick, you get sick because you know you‘re competing. You and I are competing
and if I have to buy medicine, the company has to bring me medicine, that means you‘re going to
do better than me. So once they get sick, even though you make them, they get better, because
they had to buy medicine, that makes your, you did a better job raising yours than I did. So once
this happens, you know mentally that you‘re not going to win. But still you have to take care of
them. And actually you spend more time with a bad flock or sick flock than you do a good flock.
If you got a good flock, you kinda keep away from them and let them do their thing. But if
they‘re sick you have to be in there with them all the time and you know in the back of your
mind, it‘s the loser, you know. And so it‘s kinda discouraging.
JW: Did you ever have to destroy an entire flock?
WB: No, but I was around one they did. Not mine, but—
JW: Another local farmer?
JW: What happens?
WB: Well, they had that Avian Flu and that‘s when they came through—you heard about that,
they wiped out, took all of them in the county and buried them and all that good stuff. Gassed
them in the houses.
JW: They just gas them and then bury them?
WB: All the houses were full of turkeys and they just shut the houses up tight and put gas in
there and then took a loader in and hauled them out in dump trucks and dumped them in pits that
had linings in them and they had inspectors and all that stuff.
JW: So was disease a big problem with your flocks?
WB: Big problem. Now not every flock. But there‘s always a disease of some kind in the county.
That‘s why we try not to go to each other‘s farms. And then you have a service person who
comes from the other farms to check you out, and he‘s supposed to be clean when he gets there
but, and I guess they are so, but—but it—even birds carry it.
JW: Just birds that are flying around the houses?
WB: Yeah. They carry these diseases from one farm to the other and they say rodents. Any
number of ways disease can get moved from one farm to the other. So I don‘t know, but there‘s
something. Always. Then the feed. They would mix the, the companies would, because wheat‘s
cheaper than corn, they‘d buy these gobs of wheat and mix it, and we‘d know just as soon as the
wheat hit the feed cause the turkeys would get real loose and your floors would get wet. And you
can‘t dry them up because you have to keep the temperature a certain way. You have air
circulating and there‘s fans, but once they get loose, if you know what I‘m talking about, then the
floors get wet. And the floors get wet, then their feet get sore. The feet get sore, they don‘t want
to walk. Even to the feeder. So they just sit. So while they‘re sitting, they‘re not gaining weight.
So here I go again, I‘m losing money.
JW: So did you have a choice of whether or not to get the feed that had the wheat in it?
WB: No. The companies that were hiring me decided cause it‘s their turkeys, their feed. They‘re
just paying me to do this. So I guess they figure that they can save x dollars by using wheat.
Even though they might not make as much over on y, but the difference is not enough to make
them quit buying wheat. They kinda went the cheaper way.
JW: What about, like, over time, when you first started and when you ended? Did the diseases
change or did the—
WB: No. And they still got them. I go back to the farm every now and then, and they‘re still
fighting it. Not every flock now. I‘m making it sound bad that every flock, but just about the
time you think you know what you‘re doing, the next flock (hand gesture) down the hill.
JW: And it‘s just problems with food and animals and stuff?
WB: (overlapping) Yeah the feed and then there are diseases. Right now, I just watched at lunch,
they got a scare on horses now.
JW: Oh really?
WB: Yeah. Some sort of, something to do with their breathing. Respiratory _____(??) So now
they got a big thing on horses. You can‘t go on anybody else‘s horse farm. So it‘s the same kinda
thing. I guess you‘re raising so many. It‘s not like you got an old turkey out here in the yard
walking around eating corn. But when you pack them in a building, if one gets something, it‘s
just rampant, I mean.
JW: So were you required to medicate your birds?
WB: Yes. At directions of a service person.
JW: Okay, so did he companies provide the medication?
JW: They paid for it?
WB: Yes. They had their own medical facilities where they got their supplies. They‘d bring us a
case of this. It used to be they‘d bring us a bottle, then they started bringing us cases of medicine.
And we had to run it through the water see. We have machines on the water that you put the
medicine in and it goes out with the water.
JW: Oh ok, so you don‘t work independently, you worked with companies?
WB: I worked for. I worked for Rocco. Then I worked for Cargill.
JW: And what were your relationships with like, with both of those companies? Was one better
than the other?
WB: No, it was about the same. Probably Rocco was a little more grower-friendly in that they
were local. See local guys owned Rocco. When Cargill got in, I wasn‘t in, what, a couple years
with Cargill, but they‘re well known and my little farm didn‘t mean very much to them. But with
the local guys, with Rocco, they were more of a family kind of thing.
JW: Are they just right in the Harrisonburg area?
WB: Well, Rockingham, Augusta, Shenandoah, Paige counties, but their office is in
JW: Were your birds being—Where were your birds being sold when you first started the
WB: All-over. See they have a—in Dayton, that‘s where all the turkeys go from Cargill over on,
used to be Rocco. And then they have a distributor, distribution plant over on [Route] 11, Mount
Crawford, cold storage. And then of course they sell it, ship it out of there all-over, I guess all-
over or at least the east coast.
JW: Was it just going to processing companies?
WB: No no. It was going to grocery stores, businesses that retail it.
JW: How was your first year of growing?
WB: How was it?
JW: Yeah. How would you describe your first year?
WB: Uh, well probably the biggest learning experience of my life. Thinking that I would be
going to the bank every day to put money in. I realized I was working every day. I just, I thought
it, I didn‘t have any idea it was as much work as it was going to be. And it‘s like I say, the first
three weeks, it‘s work. We get out of here at six o‘clock morning and it‘s right work in your back
and I worked in an office. I was the boss in an office.
JW: So big change?
WB: Ah yes. That‘s not even the word for it.
JW: So who showed you how to start off and get going with everything?
WB: Well, not really anybody. I mean, well of course they had service people that came, but uh,
SB: Did trial and error.
WB: Did a lot of trial and error. I would assume they were supposed to give us more instruction,
but they just said here come the turkeys and you‘re going to be doing it in the morning. And I‘m
saying how do we do this. Well just turn this button and feed runs in and so—it wasn‘t a lot of
JW: So at the beginning they just said you need these turkey houses and—
WB: No, I went to them. It wasn‘t like I was doing them a favor. Like I say, I was going to make
a lot of money, and so I borrowed this money and built two turkey houses and they told me that
they‘d made a contract with me that if I‘d built the turkey houses they‘d furnish me with turkeys.
And they‘d take care of when you get the turkeys, what kind of turkeys you‘d get, meaning
breed, when you sell the turkeys, what kind of feed you used, when the turkeys go. I mean if,
they had, as far as—When they‘re selling, they have to uh, they have orders, like, like I‘m raising
a turkey at eighteen weeks. That‘s kind of our not contractual agreement, but verbal agreement.
Well they might have a need for turkeys, light turkeys, and in fifteen weeks they‘ll come in and
take them right out your house. Which makes you angry because when they‘re that old you don‘t
have as much trouble with disease. They‘re stronger and meaner and they come in and take right
out from under you because they need them somewhere else. They need the meat. And that‘s
their turkeys. Even though, uh, you‘d have no say. So you don‘t make as much money, because
when a turkey gets older he starts picking up weight every day, eating every day we got to have
charts how much they gain a day. When they‘re little fellas they don‘t gain very much, but when
they get big they gain lots.
JW: So the company made basically all the decisions for you?
WB: All the decisions. Yeah.
JW: Were there any decisions that you made on your own?
JW: I mean, that would affect the whole flock or anything.
WB: Well, yeah. We uh, we were in charge of the temperature and that‘s very crucial and air.
And it‘s kinda hard to understand, um, heat for turkeys because you‘ve always been taught to
shut the door. Don‘t stand with the door open because you‘ll let the heat out. Well, with turkeys
you have to let your curtains down. Today, with the wind blowing, you let your curtains down.
Well, you know what‘s coming in. We got to heat that wind. So when you have to heat the wind,
you have to turn the stoves up. You have fans in there that circulate that wind and you have to
make sure that that air hits them, it‘s not cold, because if it does, they start (sniffs) snickering. So
it‘s uh, but we had to watch that closely and uh, but as far as what feed, what birds, when we
brought them, and when we sold them, we made no decisions. They make them all.
JW: So there was never a time when you hatched the birds yourself?
WB: There was no what?
JW: Was there ever a time you yourself hatched the birds?
JW: Did you ever consider changing your turkey operation to a chicken operation?
JW: You did?
WB: Yeah, but when you borrow a quarter of a million and try to pay it off, the last thing you
want to hear someone say is well we can do that, but for another fifty thousand. And you‘re
thinking, I don‘t know if I want to go another fifty or not, because I got in the turkey business
hearing how good it was. So I‘m hearing how good the chicken business is, but when I got into
turkey business I found out I wasn‘t quite as good as I thought it would be so now do I want to
take another chance. Put more money in to go chicken. So if you have to convert everything, it‘s
a different, as far as equipment inside. The houses wouldn‘t have to be changed much, but the
equipment has to be changed for chickens.
JW: So it was basically a matter of money?
WB: Well, yeah.
JW: Okay. Over time did you invest in new structures or improvements to your old ones?
WB: Well, the company is always telling you need to change things. Fan location, stove location,
different kinds of fans, different kinds of stoves, and of course they‘re telling you if you don‘t
you‘re not going to be able to compete with Mr. Farmer A over here who has already done what
we‘ve asked him to do. He‘s going to be doing well and you‘re, he‘s going to be beating you out
of it. It‘s very competitive with growers. So the company uses that against you to say well now
we‘d like for you to put five thousand dollars to improve your stoves. And me being the nice guy
I am to work with would always say, No. And then they would say well, but Mr. A over here did
it. So now he‘s going to have the benefit, advantage on you when settlement time comes. So it‘s
kinda of a (pause)—
WB: And if they would really come out with something they wanted done, they can actually cut
your contract off, wouldn‘t give you any birds, and if you don‘t have any birds you make
nothing. So you‘re kinda in a bind.
JW: Was there ever a time when you were like that and you had to make the changes?
WB: No. Oh yeah! There were times that they told me, cause I‘m nasty, they had to threaten and
said well if you don‘t do it, we probably won‘t put you any birds in. So I said well, maybe I will.
JW: Did you just take out loans?
WB: Yeah boy, farm credit. You ever hear of it?
WB: Well if you‘re a farmer you will. They‘re located, they have a branch in Harrisonburg and
they‘re strictly farmers. They loan money to farmers and they‘re a good outfit. Of course, you
have to pay them back. That‘s the bad part.
JW: Yeah. Did these, um, improvements ever cause you like, financial hardship?
WB: No, uh the guy that bought it off of me right now is in a, kinda in a tight spot, in that they‘re
going into what they call tunnel ventilation now. It‘s a gigantic fan and it‘s like—and so they‘re
telling him he has to have these tunnel fans, tunnel ventilation. He said ―I‘m not going to do it,
cause I‘m not making any money.‖ So they‘re in a kinda lockdown. Now, so I don‘t know what‘s
going to happen, but uh, I don‘t know. We never got in any bind with them really.
JW: Did you know of any other friends who faced hardship or foreclosure as a result of their
debts with the companies?
WB: Uh, well I know a lot of people that are out now that were in. I don‘t know that they went
under. It wasn‘t a thing that you were losing money, you just weren‘t making very much. I mean,
I don‘t know whether that makes sense or not.
JW: So if you stayed with it, you were just at a level?
WB: Right. It was the thing of making a little money and then them saying well we need to
upgrade your poultry operation. Well you‘re saying, but this is my money, to myself, I‘m saying
this is money that I put in the bank and saved from profit. Now I have to reinvest it. And that
kinda aggravated me that all they had to do was say I want this changed and I had to do it. If I
wanted to do business with them or uh—so it wasn‘t like you were working for nothing. There‘s
always an upgrade. You have to upgrade your equipment. Of course, and with turkeys, in
particular toms, they‘re real rough on equipment. I mean, they‘re tearing it all to pieces and
picking at it, tearing and scratching, and—so you constantly have to upgrade your equipment
because of—well they just, wear I guess, change and drag change, drag and feed was changed,
augers and a lot of feed. A lot of feed goes through those things.
JW: So do you know a lot of people who quit because they just got tired of that?
WB: Yeah, I know a good many that, that are—course I say they have a new co-op now. The
Wamplers, that was our competitor when I was with Rocco. Wamplers was our competitor you
might say. They were the other company in the county. And they, well I don‘t know if they went
under or what happened, anyway they ended up with a co-op, you know the farmers own that
one now. And yeah, a lot of people have gone from Cargill to them. I think Cargill has a waiting
list to get on with the co-op, cause a new broom sweeps it clean now they‘re going to hit it rich.
JW: So Cargill is the biggest company right now in the Harrisonburg area?
WB: Right now in this area.
JW: Is Rocco still a competitor?
WB: (overlapping) But it wasn‘t—Rocco sold to Cargill.
JW: Oh they did? Ok Are there any other local companies besides Cargill?
WB: Well this co-op.
JW: The co-op.
WB: They took over for Wampler.
SB: There‘s Perdue around.
WB: Yeah but they‘re chicken. I‘m talking about turkeys is what I‘m talking about. But now the
farmers have a co-op now. They took over Wamplers. Wamplers turkey farms and they‘re
competing against Cargill locally.
JW: So the co-op is strictly turkeys?
JW: How about competition with other growers? Would you say that that increased or decreased
WB: It stayed the same. They have a scale in how they pay you and when you sell your birds,
they know how much you have in each bird and you compete against the next farmer in how
much he has in each bird and then they have a scale that they call it bonuses. So if you have less
in your turkey than I do in mine and yours weighs more than mine, it‘s a feed ratio, then they
give you a bonus. It‘s very competitive. Very competitive. Like I said, if your turkeys get sick,
it‘s got so competitive, and they bring you medicine, you know right away you‘re not going to
get the bonus, because you have the medicine invloved. Somebody else in the county will have a
flock with no medicine, so going to get the bonus. And it‘s really competitive, I mean, really. It‘s
so competitive, they won‘t tell you when you—they give you a list of settlement people you
settled with and they would call A, B, C, D, E, and you, B, F, to show you where you ranked, but
they wouldn‘t even give you the names of the A, B, C. Now on A, B, C, his name would be on
A, and my name would be D. So they wouldn‘t let you know who you‘re competing against,
you‘re just a number.
JW: Okay. So you just saw yourself with other letters?
WB: My name would be there but all the other farmers above me and below me in the pecking
order would be listed as A, B, Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. C.
JW: Oh, that‘s interesting how they did that. It was, was that just—
WB: So we can‘t get together and compare notes, I reckon.
JW: Oh really?
WB: I don‘t know, that‘s what I accused them of. I don‘t know why they did it though.
JW: Did you at any time have a free-range operation?
JW: Why did you make this decision or was it a company‘s decision?
WB: Well, I went to this company. Well the companies now, like, when I built, Rocco gave me
somewhere, I believe, around $25,000 check. Just laid it on my desk and said here‘s $25,000. If
you want to buy a new car or whatever, there it is. Probably be head to put it your bill for your
new building. So that was incentive to go with the company. And at that time, when I went in,
Rocco was giving the growers bonuses at the end of the year. Just like December, they‘d come
by and give you a check, which was part of the profit. So, as my luck would run, the year I got in
was the last, the year before was the last year bonus they ever got. And it was like $20,000
check, just give you $20,000. Here, you been a good grower this year, here‘s your $20,000.
JW: So they just stopped doing that?
WB: Well they stopped it, because see it‘s getting competitive, with them too. And when they
have to build a feed mill, you‘re talking about millions or like the uh, distribution plant on
[Route] 11 South, big, that‘s big. If you ever go out there, look at the dual lane highway off to
the right, Big. And that costs millions. Well, somebody has to pay. The company has to pay for
it. How? They take these little bonuses away like. And then it got so competitive to them to make
money that, where they going to cut? The low man on the pole and that would be the grower.
JW: Yeah. So it was the company‘s—the company didn‘t want a free-range operation so you
went with the company?
WB: Well, you mean as far as getting in?
WB: Well, I couldn‘t, I didn‘t have a choice. I had to go as—and this was the case of raising
turkeys in Rockingham County, I had to go with Wampler or Rocco. And I preferred, I wanted to
go with Wampler, but they couldn‘t take me right then. Rocco was hunting growers at that time
and they gave me a $25,000 bonus to sign and build. So I said Hey, what the heck‘s the
difference? I‘ll go with them. But, you see, I, where could I buy feed, finance it? Say I did that,
built my own houses and bought my feed off the feed mill, paid for it, then when I get ready to
sell it who do I sell it to? I have to process it. Well those guys at the, they have their own plants.
They‘re not going to put me in front of theirs. It‘s really uh, it kinda got you. I mean, where
would I sell them if I hadn‘t processed? I could put a stand up on the road.
JW: So it would have been a lot more difficult if you had been independent?
WB: Yeah, see, yeah independent used to be years ago, there were some independents. They
were out in this county that made big money, Big money. But, the local plants were letting them
use their feed and their processing and this kinda thing. But when it got so competitive, the plant
said no, no. We‘re not going to do that. We‘ll—so the two, actually the two, Wampler, at that
time, and Rocco, controlled the county. As far as turkeys.
JW: So how long ago would you say that the independent growers were—?
WB: Uh, I would say, I been involved and stayed with it and since I been out twenty years, so
uh, twenty-five or thirty years ago when the independents were hanging in there.
JW: So did you regret not doing free-range or doing this way?
WB: Tell me the question again.
JW: Did you ever regret um, not getting a free-range operation? Like, do they get paid more or
WB: Free range. I‘m not with you.
JW: Free range. Like, um, free-range operation would be where they‘re not in the houses. They
have houses but I think they like—
WB: You mean independent growers?
JW: No like a free range—
SB: Ranging turkeys.
WB: Oh range turkeys. So did I want to do that?
JW: Why not?
WB: Well, it takes a special breed to do that because the turkeys are in the weather. If they‘re
outside and you have to water them and feed them each day and they don‘t start or nothing, you
have to start them in houses, and then when they get a certain age you have to move them
outside. But a day like today, with the mud, you got to get water to the waters and feed to the
feeders and it isn‘t pretty with the mud. And the turkeys, when the ground is dry and all, it‘s
great. Turkeys on the range. But when it gets wet, you get the same thing you got in a wet house.
They‘re getting—no I didn‘t consider that.
JW: More disease?
WB: Well, not really. Probably less disease but they don‘t gain as much cause you control. The
turkey in the house, you control his environment. The turkey outside, they raise him cheaper, but
he doesn‘t gain as much cause you can‘t control him like you can in a house. Now, that‘s
assuming you don‘t have disease. If he‘s outside he can get disease too, so I don‘t know. No, I
never considered range turkeys.
JW: Ok, um, what were relationships like with other poultry growers in the area?
WB: I guess we all cried on each other‘s shoulder. Yeah, I learned to know them well. But then
of course, half the time we couldn‘t go on their farms because of disease.
SB: Well we had picnics.
WB: Yeah, we had some picnics.
JW: Just the local growers would get together?
WB: Yeah, yeah. And just, uh, (pause) but, (pause) it was—I don‘t know, it was just—
SB: Meetings, you had meetings.
WB: Yeah but that was company. The company had meetings with us all the time. And they had
a company picnic each year. That was the company that did that. We had prizes and door prizes
and contests and all that kind of stuff. That was Rocco. Cargill, I don‘t know whether or not they
do that. See now again you‘re talking about the big guy. He‘s not really too much concerned
with the little fella. Rocco was the local constrictor family.
JW: So it‘s just local farmers that work with Rocco?
WB: Now with the new co-op, they‘re all, their whole board is local farmers. They got in when
Wampler, Longacre got out. They took over the Hinton plant, feed mill, and his neighbors on the
north end of town.
JW: How about with your chick suppliers, with your company?
WB: Well, see they decided. Our turkeys came out of Canada, they came out of Minnesota, they
came out of North Carolina, they came out of local hatcheries. You had no idea where they were
coming from, but we knew a lot of times when we would know where they were coming from
whether we were going to have trouble or not. But that didn‘t matter, we still got them. And the
first question when the trucker would back up to the turkey house to unload, we would say
Where they from? And the driver would tell us and we would say ―Oh man, bad.‖ I mean, we
knew from experience that hatcheries (??) wasn‘t going to be good.
JW: So what were like problem areas would you say?
WB: Well, I don‘ know. See they, I don‘t know much about the breeder eggs, but I know that
they are very competitive too. They‘re paid on hatchability, so if her farm hatches ninety percent
and your farm hatches ninety-two percent of the eggs hatched into actual turkeys, then you get a
little bonus because you had a better hatch. So if you have diseases and so forth that passes
through into the egg into the chicken, into the turkey, in right in your houses. Some would come
in that just, we would have half of them roll on their backs. So we had to flip them back up. They
just get on their back and kick.
SB: We called them flippers.
JW: Why did they do that?
WB: Just they were very weak, and see a lot of them were on the road. They‘d be on the road for
two days. They‘d be hatched, thrown in boxes, shipped here, and no water and nothing to eat. So
you could get them out of Harrisonburg hatched, normally they would come right in just like
they‘d hatched in the floor here and, but if you haul them in a truck for a day or two, then they‘re
dehydrated and so it‘s very, to us it was very important where the turkeys came from and how
long they‘d been on the road.
JW: So like the further away they‘d come from?
WB: Well that was, yeah, see some of them came out of Canada. And the local, at that time
Rocco, they didn‘t have enough shelters to hatch that they were raising so many turkeys they
couldn‘t hatch enough of their own birds, so they had to buy them. They were buying off of
Cudey, which is another farm that does just eggs. And we were getting some out of Canada and
JW: Hmm. How did your relationships change over time?
WB: With the company?
WB: I probably got nastier.
WB: Yeah, seriously I was figuring on making a lot of money, big money, after about ten years it
hits you. You‘re not going to make big money. Though, I was probably a little temperamental, a
little touchy when they would tell me to do something. They first tell me I would say ―Hey, if I
can make more money, sure!‖ But then I didn‘t do it. So after a few of those rounds, I‘d say, I
got nasty. I‘d say, ―No, I‘m not going to do it.‖ Then they‘d say, ―You‘re going to do it or we‘ll
shut you down.‖ And I‘d say, ―Oh, maybe I will do it.‖
JW: Were there any common grievances among the farmers in the area? Like with, like say you
and another farmer were both with Rocco, did ya‘ll both have like common problems?
WB: Yes, very common.
JW: What were some of those problems?
WB: Well, disease—
WB: Feed. Yeah we all fuss about the feed.
JW: Just the wheat?
WB: Like I told you, they get loose. Well, it wasn‘t always wheat. The-if you get too much salt
in the feed. Of course we don‘t know anything about that. We‘re out here, the feed is mixed
when we see it. But if somebody at the mill had put too much salt in it, then they start drinking a
lot of water and then when they drinking a lot of water, then they get loose again and then the
floors get wet again. I mean, it‘s just—we all had the same problems. Even the guys making the
best money. They had the same problems. Gas prices, they give you a utility check to pay for
your gas, so you try to save a little bit of that, but you still have to keep the temperature up and
put the curtains down.
JW: So how did you make these problems known?
WB: Well, we had, with Rocco, they had a grower council, which I was on a couple times. You
go meet like once a month and sit down with other growers and the Rocco personnel and discuss
their common problems. And that was pretty good cause then we‘d have a letter that would be
sent to all the growers. What we discussed at our meetings. And the growers would call if you
were on the board as a grower, other growers would call you and complain about something and
ask you to take it to the wheels, the officials of the company. So we‘d sit down to lunch and had
meetings and the company would try to tell us their problems and things that we weren‘t doing
that we should be doing that would help them be more efficient. And it was—and again when I
got to Cargill, they, when I left them, they hadn‘t decided to do that yet. So maybe they‘re doing
it now. I don‘t know what they‘re doing.
JW: Did you have any problems with neighbors? Like, them complaining about anything?
WB: No, because where I was, where my turkey houses was, and this might not have been good,
but I had three or four turkey farms on this – sight disctance.
JW: Oh really?
WB: And that‘s probably not the best. See that‘s another thing that probably hurt the disease or
SB: Spread it.
WB: Spread the disease because when Rocco went on this kick of buying and giving bonuses to
build, they didn‘t—all you had to have was like twenty acres of land to build your houses. And
they didn‘t take into consideration that there was one across the road. So the way the wind blows
would have a lot to do with disease and when you got all these farms real close together, if you
get something, I‘m going to get it.
JW: Are you really close to—
WB: Back at the farm I was. Well, actually one of them was the Wampler farm. That‘s the other
team. But they uh—it was Wampler‘s own farm. Putting one of their growers in and it was like
five or six houses there. And then I had, they were Wampler‘s. Wong, he had a Wampler house
and then _______(??) had two houses right across the road. And I had my houses there and they
put that one across the road, but they put two more. Neighbors, no. In my case, I can imagine
neighbors would complain because you‘re cleaning out, it‘s not pretty.
JW: Did you have to dispose of your own waste?
WB: Yeah see that came another problem. I had a hundred and thirty two acres of farm, but you
raised hay and pastured the cattle and we were, which is wrong, but we were just pouring the
litter on. Taking it out of the houses and putting it on the ground. Well then the environmental
people got in, and they said, ―Wait a minute. How much are you putting on?‖ With the
Chesapeake Bay thing. And we‘re saying ―Just about right.‖ And they say, ―How do you know?‖
And we say ―Well we just know.‖ So they start, we had to have tests, test your ground, and they
told you how many tons per acre, pounds per acre you could put on. Well in my case, I had more
litter than I had land. So then I had to sell, and it‘s a real complicated thing, but you have books
you have to keep and I sold to an old order of Mennonites and they‘d come in and haul it out my
litter shed. You had a shed you stored it in so it wouldn‘t run off. So I had to keep in my records
how many tons they got and then, the environmental people would tell me how many tons I was
going to have. Then I had to tell them what I did with those tons. And I could only use so much
on my farm, so therefore I had to sell it. Now if you bought it off of me, you had to sign a paper
saying you bought it. Because they wanted to keep records of where it went. Because you might
be taking it over to your farm which is already getting too much on it to start with. So they
wanted to know ―Well you sold it to her?‖ Well, then they‘d check you out and say now ―You
have a hundred and thirty two acres? You can do that. If you have five acres, you‘re getting way
too much litter. So therefore what did you do with it?‖ And you‘d have to show them where you,
guys would buy it and sell it. It‘s kind of a trade.
JW: So the people you were selling it to, were they just using it for fertilizer?
WB: For fertilizer. Yeah, and I was selling mine for four dollars a ton. But now, you try to give it
JW: Why is that?
WB: Because this DQ³ got in and they‘re tracking it hard, trying to keep the bay clean. And I had
one farmer who would take all I‘d give him, but he had a poultry house and he wouldn‘t, I‘d say
you got to sign for it and he‘d say ―I won‘t sign.‖ I‘d say, ―Well you‘re not getting it then.‖ But
he wanted to use it for corn ground, but he wouldn‘t sign because he had his own poultry
operation and he was trying to protect with his litter, so—but it‘s got to the point now that you
have to have a place for it to go. We were sending it to Eastern Shore, trucking it. I was selling it
to the guy who was trucking it to Eastern Shore. That‘s what they call that peninsula that comes
down. So some guys from Maryland start competing and saying—The state of Maryland said
we‘ll give you two dollars a ton if you‘ll take this from Maryland instead of Virginia. That‘s how
competitive it is. So they said well sure. So they tell our guys who are hauling it up there, saying
you pay us, we‘ll take it. They said ―No we‘re not paying you, we‘re selling it to you.‖ They said
―Well we can get two dollars from the state of Maryland.‖ So that‘s crazy. That‘s more
complicated than I‘m telling you about. I‘m just giving you. So it‘s right now, the guys back here
that bought my farm are giving it. Order Mennonites are hauling it up into behind Dayton. The
order country and using it for fertilizer.
JW: So it‘s much harder to sell now.
WB: Yeah. You‘re not selling now, if you can get rid of it, now is the problem.
JW: Well what do you, I mean, what would you do if you couldn‘t give it away?
WB: Well I would either have to—you have to get rid of it, because they come out and inspect
your farm. ―They‖ being the quality environmental people. They‘d make random checks and you
have to have it in the shed, or covered. Approved covering and approved sheds. And they come
out to make sure you haven‘t strewn it all over the ground so the water runs off down into the
creeks, It‘s pretty wild.
JW: So besides the one person you hired for you farm, did you have any other workers?
WB: No. Like I say, when you were hauling a load of litter, I might have had farmers come in,
and when I cleaned out the growout ends. That‘s the big ends of the houses. I‘d have to hire a
couple of guys to do the tractors and spreaders to help me.
JW: They were just, like temporary workers?
WB: Yeah, just a day or two at a time.
JW: And you just like—Were they just neighbors?
WB: Yeah, they were guys who worked like construction work and tractoring and they‘d help
me in the evenings and Saturdays.
JW: Did you ever worry about suddenly losing your job, like them saying ―Okay that‘s it. Your
chick supply is cut off‖?
WB: Well, I can‘t say I worried about it. I thought about it, because I really had no guarantee. If
I had to do over, I‘d never do it. Not in a million years, because I had no way of knowing, other
than verbal, that they would actually honor their contract. Because all they have to do is say I‘m
doing something wrong and they‘d cut me off. Here I got a quarter of a million invested in it, but
if I don‘t have turkeys, I don‘t have anything. So that‘s really a gamble and I did it, but I‘d never
do it again. I got out of it. I paid off and everything. But when I look back, and at that time, it
would come up a time when you‘d think, ―I wasn‘t too smart.‖ Because, let‘s say at the end of
the first of your contract, they come by and say well I want you to put another hundred thousand
dollars into this operation and I‘d say no way. They‘d say, ―Well we‘re not going to sign a
contract.‖ What do I do? I owe, at that time I probably owed about $225,000. So what do I do?
Use it for a bowling alley or what. I mean, you know anybody that wants to buy a empty turkey
house? So I mean, I wasn‘t too smart. It seemed like a good idea and I got out of it, paid off and
all, but—Say the company had gone bankrupt.
WB: I mean, suppose they would have.
JW: Oh okay. Then I guess you‘d lose everything.
WB: Well, what would I do? I mean, they didn‘t and, but—suppose they would have. I didn‘t
know their financial—they may have been on thin ice at that time. I didn‘t know or didn‘t care. I
wanted some of that big money. So, but when I look back, I think man, if they‘d have gone under
or something, and I‘d have been with the new turkey house, what would I have done with it?
JW: Could you have gone to another company?
WB: Well, you could have, see, Wampler‘s was going at that time. However, Rocco had like a
hundred and seventy farms. Now let‘s say they go out of business or bankrupt. That means a
hundred and seventy of us are going to go to Wampler‘s and say we want to come over.
Wampler‘s, I don‘t know Wampler‘s that well, I know them personally, but they‘re going to say,
―I don‘t think I need a hundred and seventy.‖ Cause how are they going to process it? Their feed
mill wouldn‘t make that much feed. So they would probably take the best growers, but the
average and also runs are going to fall between the cracks and that‘s scary. It‘s scary when I sit
and talk about it now. I got out of it, but I had no guarantee.
JW: Yeah that is scary. What about residential development. Did that ever impinge on your
ability to run your operation?
SB: There were farms all around.
WB: I was in turkey/chicken country. A lot of chicken farms around me and no, and it‘s still that
way back there. I can understand what your question is; if I wasn‘t have been back here in this
backcountry. No, there were farmers and poultry people, mostly poultry people.
SB: Dairy, some dairy.
WB: Had a dairy farm beside of me. I sold a lot of litter to him and I ended up giving him a lot,
because he was a dairy farmer and had a lot of land and his cow manure wasn‘t too much to
cover his corn ground. So he needed my help, so he‘d get my litter and that was pretty handy.
He‘d just haul it across the road and put it on his farm. He could do it legally and
environmentally sound and safe, because they had allowed him to use it, so that worked out well
JW: Well, one last question, why did you retire and are you happy now that you‘ve retired?
WB: Uh, (pause) I guess one of the reasons I retired is I‘m old. Two, reason two, it wasn‘t
financially good enough for me to stay. Three, I probably realized that the growers were doing
the work, a lot of the work and the other guys were making the money. When you get older, and
not that you‘re rich but you can survive, you think why in the heck and I going to work myself to
death so somebody else can live in a big house. That‘s kind of a bad attitude, but that‘s kinda the
way I looked at it. And I guess another reason is I was just wore out. It was just a lot of work, a
lot of dirt. A lot of dirt. Lot of dirt. We‘d go in and wash those houses down, you just—it‘s dirty.
Water and dirt runs. Dirt (laughs).
JW: A lot of dirt (laughs).
WB: The smell of dirt. Mama could smell me before I got home across the hill coming. And it
was wet. During the wintertime, washing, wet and cold, and it wasn‘t, I wasn‘t making enough
money for that.
SB: It just wasn‘t pleasant anymore.
WB: I mean when you go by and the birds are singing and eating, the feeders are running, it‘s a
good feeling. But it wasn‘t enough of that to justify that, cause a lot of times to the singing they
were (sniffs) sniffing.
JW: Is that just, them have a cold?
WB: Yeah, they get colds just like humans in their respiratory systems. Wet, cold feet sitting
there with the wind blowing on them.
JW: So you are glad you retired?
WB: Glad? That isn‘t—I‘m blessed. But uh, glad doesn‘t have anything to do with it. I‘m just
blessed. I was very blessed to get out. Very blessed. Cause I go back there and they‘re fussing
and fighting with each other over the same things I used to fuss and fight over. I got out of it. I
mean, I don‘t mean I got out of it. I Got Out of it [emphasized]. But no it‘s—now the cattle part,
I loved that.
JW: Oh yeah?
WB: Oh yeah. I could to go on Sunday and watch my calves and spend the day watching them
JW: Was that just dairy farming?
WB: No that was just stock, beef cattle. And those little calves and they‘d grow up and we had
them all numbered and all. That was fun. I enjoyed that. And I liked the calves. They‘d get sick
too, but you‘d give them a shot. Yeah I couldn‘t get with them turkeys. Ah, no thanks. I‘m
supposed to be saying nice things.
JW: You can say anything you like (laughs.)
WB: It was a wonderful—I hated it (laughs).
JW: Well, um, that‘s all the questions I have.
WB: You know like, when I worked for thirty years, I had paid vacation, paid sick leave, eleven
or twelve holidays a year. Other than snow removal or emergencies, maintenance, we had off
every weekend. There were days we got wet and muddy, when we had a roadblock or something,
but I didn‘t have that back there. I had no insurance and no vacation. Christmas morning, when
we had little turkeys, my family and grandkids and all would go with me back, so we‘d get here
in time for Christmas. And that wasn‘t every Christmas, but it seemed like we had turkeys every
Christmas, ever in that stage where you had to work on them. And it was just aggravating as
heck. I mean, I guess I‘d been spoiled. Like I say, I thought I‘d make big money. Big. But it
didn‘t happen. I made and paid off all my debts, paid off the quarter of a million. Made some
money. (??) See then and the problem was I had had the house fifteen years. Well, they
are right now, twenty years, and the company‘s coming down hard on the guys that bought it,
cause they want some improvements made. And if you‘re going to compete, you‘re going to
have to improve. So what are they going to do?
JW: So if you had stuck with it another couple years—
WB: I knew I was going to have to upgrade. And of course a new company came in and bought
it, Cargill came in and bought it, and by the time I was there, they were just kinda feeling us out
to see what they had bought and how things were going and actually we went to meetings with
their wheels and they said, ―We‘re not going to make any immediate changes. We‘re going to
look at the situation and see how things are going and then we‘ll make our decision of what we
want to change.‖ I was kinda—I got out before they went with too many changes. Not because of
that, but because I found a buyer. But he has since changed from Cargill to the Co-op.
JW: Oh really?
WB: He jumped. But he‘s not as happy as he thought he was going to be with that either,
because, like I say, things that look like gold aren‘t always gold. They glitter but, and new things
always look better than old. Yup.
JW: Well, that‘s all I have. Do you have anything else you would like to add?
WB: You want me to sing (laughs)?
JW: You can sing if you want.
WB: I got my guitar in here and I can sing (laughs).
JW: All right, well I‘m going to—
End of interview
¹ Rockingham Memorial Hospital
² Virginia Tech, School of Agriculture
³ Department of Environmental Quality