Califonia Bountiful

Talking turkey

November/December 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Heidi Diestel works all year to put a feast on the holiday table

Heidi Diestel's family has been raising turkeys near Sonora for more than 70 years. Photo courtesy of Diestel Family Ranch

Work tends to gobble up most of Heidi Diestel's time. For 70-plus years, her family has raised turkeys on a ranch outside Sonora, in the foothills east of Modesto, and has earned a loyal following.

"When we have customers make comments like, 'It's not Thanksgiving without a Diestel turkey,' that's super neat and really a special thing that means a lot to our family," Diestel said.

Diestel grew up in the family business. After college, she tried the nonagricultural working world, as her parents had encouraged her to find out what she wanted to do.

"Our family had built something that was really exceptional," Diestel said. "After going out and experiencing a lot of different industries and working really hard to find any other career path, I realized how much I loved this business."

And so, her life's journey led her back to the ranch. Her husband of nine years, Jared Orrock, is now the ranch president; he and Heidi run the place along with her brother, Jason. Their turkeys can be found at regional natural or organic grocery stores—or online, straight from the farm.

Diestel and her family also are interested in raising the next generation of farmers. The longtime Farm Bureau members offer internships and supply FFA chapters with young turkeys.

Hatching a legacy
The Diestel family has farmed in and around Tuolumne County since the 1920s; the turkey ranch itself was launched by Jack Diestel, Heidi's grandfather, in 1949. The times, they have changed. "It looks a lot different than when my grandpa started," Heidi Diestel said. "It was about 2,000 head or so. Today we're at about 250,000, which sounds like a lot but in the scope of our industry is still quite small."

Rule of three
Those 250,000 birds aren't the same as those in 1949, either, Diestel said. "The genetics of the turkeys has totally evolved," she said. Breeding has affected how the birds grow and their hardiness. "The feed is also another big component, keeping a slow-growth kind of feed formula, so ensuring that the turkeys have the time to develop their flavor and their taste and their texture. These three elements—the breed, the feed and the time—are a recipe for success."

Long-range planning
That bird sitting in the middle of your Rockwell-worthy dining table took six months to raise and bring to market, by Diestel's estimation—and mentally, she's already moving on. "We're looking at procuring the birds probably a year prior to Thanksgiving," she said. Right about now, as families gather for Thanksgiving 2021, "we'll be already looking at and preparing for November 2022."

Not just for Thanksgiving
Turkey doesn't get nearly as high a billing on the menu the other 364 days of the year, Diestel said. "In American culture, we enjoy turkey for Thanksgiving, and then throughout the year, we don't really think about turkey that much"—unless it's in a turkey sandwich or a turkey burger. Diestel said there's a lot of brainstorming going on, with people trying to think up new ways to bring turkey products to market year-round.

You do what?
So, what might surprise people about turkey farming? "All of it, to be honest," Diestel said, including "the fundamentals of how you farm, how you place the birds (what birds to raise on what ranch), how you care for them in the barns, all the way to the economics of it." Customers who have visited the ranch see how much work is involved. She added, "When you stop to think about all the intricacies of the breed and the feed and the time, it's an enlightening experience about where their food comes from."

Labor of love
"I love that we are in the business of producing food, and really good-quality food," Diestel said. "We are actually farmers, and we're farming. We're independently owned and marketing our own brand." This time of year, she's especially thankful: "I would say, also, it's super humbling to have a product that consumers have an entire holiday around. It's a very special thing for our family."

Kevin Hecteman

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