LANCASTER — When you park at Bob’s Turkey Farm and open the car door, the first thing you notice is a faint sound in the distance: “Gobble, gobble, gobble.”
Open another door, into the retail store adjacent to the kitchen, and you’re overwhelmed with the aromas of roasted poultry, vegetables, and spices.
Welcome to Thanksgiving central. Bob’s, one of the few remaining farms in Massachusetts where you can pick up a locally bred and raised turkey, provides the bird-to-buffet holiday works.
In addition to the freshly killed birds that have drawn customers since Robert Van Hoof opened the farm in 1954, the shop sells stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and other holiday staples, but also turkey pastrami and steak, turkey chili and soup — even a shepherd’s pie (yes, with turkey).
The Central Massachusetts business, now run by Sue Miner and Richard Van Hoof, two of Robert Van Hoof’s seven children, has endured many challenges, including changes in the economy and food handling practices that have made the work more complex while making help harder to find.
But no hardship has been greater than an accidental barn fire in June 2016 that killed about 7,000 turkey chicks. The family scrambled to rebuild the barn by the next Thanksgiving.
“People were very understanding through the fire,” said Miner, 62, who runs the business side of the operation. “The town was great. . . . They said, whatever you need, just call us.”
Because the barn had to be rebuilt quickly, the cost was higher. “We have a mortgage now, which we didn’t have before,” Miner said.
Walk to the counter, and you may meet other members of the Van Hoof family who work here. Customers also span generations, and they like to document their ties to the business over the years, Miner said.
“One family, they have three generations that have been coming here, and they meet here to get their turkey. And they always want a picture out in front, or they take one in the store,” she said.
Running the kitchen is Casey MacGregor — son of the youngest Van Hoof sibling, Julie — who has overseen food preparation for about 2½ years but started working at the family farm while in high school.
“I’d come here all the time when I was a little kid,” said MacGregor, 31, who explained that since he grew up in the family business, he’d never tried another turkey until a few years ago.
What did it taste like?
“Sawdust,” MacGregor said with a laugh. “I’m not trying to belittle any of the bigger brands, but yeah, it’s not the same.”
Like many traditions, Bob’s is a bit of a throwback, and as times have changed, the work has gotten harder. In recent years, concerns about communicable bird diseases have caused the owners to close the farm to tours and take extra precautions in handling the turkeys.
It’s also harder to find workers willing to do the difficult, unpleasant work of preparing slaughtered turkeys for sale.
That’s where Jean Van Hoof, another sibling, comes in. In recent years, Van Hoof, 66, has traveled from her home in Pacific, Wash., back to Lancaster each holiday season to help out.
“I can do the eviscerating. . . . I do the giblets,” Van Hoof explained.
She estimated that by the Friday before Thanksgiving, she had snipped her scissors about 35,000 times this season cutting out hearts, livers, and gizzards.
With the challenges it faces, the farm has scaled back production. This year, it will sell 10,000 turkeys, Miner said, compared to as many as 15,000 in its heyday.
Robert Van Hoof died April 15, 2018 — “On tax day,” Miner notes, “and he hated taxes, so that was so appropriate.” His ex-wife, Helen, who helped him run the farm in its early days and raised seven children with him, died earlier this month.
“He was 90, one week away from his 91st birthday, and she was 92,” Miner reflected. “They’d lived a good life.”
Richard Van Hoof took over the responsibility for caring for the broad-breasted white turkeys years ago, and after working full time on the farm for nearly a half-century, he has an uncanny sense for the animals.
“I can walk on the farm early in the morning, and I can tell if something’s been wrong the night before,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I can. Most people just walk by; they wouldn’t notice it.”
But Van Hoof is 65 — an age when many retire. Asked how much longer he can keep up the grueling work, he shrugged. “I have no idea.”
After the holidays, the family will discuss a succession plan, Miner said. But as Thanksgiving approached, they were just trying to get through Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Van Hoofs will gather like any other family for a feast. MacGregor will cook at his mother’s house, and a Bob’s Farm turkey will be at the center of the table.
“We don’t work Thanksgiving,” MacGregor said. “The days leading up to it, it’s pretty nuts, and I don’t have time to do much else. Whatever, that’s how it goes. I signed up for it.”