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Doing What's Right | 2015 Fall Out Here Magazine

The Diestel family is, from left, Jason, Heidi, Tim, and Joan.

Turkey farmers hold to the past while farming for the future

By Noble Sprayberry

Photography by Tracy Barbutes



Healthy turkeys make a better meal. That’s the simple idea behind the Diestel Turkey Ranch, which has been run by the same family for three generations.

“I think folks are becoming more aware of what’s in their food, and what it takes to bring poultry to market,” says Heidi Diestel, the youngest child of Tim and Joan Diestel. They are part of a Sonora, Calif., family business dating back to 1949.

“So for us, no antibiotics and doing what’s right for the animal is the foundation of our farming heritage,” she says. “We felt that approach makes a better product.”

Heidi’s grandfather, Jack Diestel, founded the ranch. Her parents took over the operation in 1982. Heidi and her brothers, Jason and Garrett, continue the heritage.

“Jason and I are back, working in the business each day,” Heidi says. “We were always encouraged to work for other folks and to do a lot of other things that interested us. But at the end of the day, if we really had a passion for the ranch and for the farm, then we were welcomed back.”

She worked in the hospitality field and in sustainable tourism planning. Along the way, she earned a graduate degree in clinical psychology. Now, she manages customer service for the ranch, as well as embracing other key rolls.

“For us, it’s just finding new ways to meet our old-fashioned values. It’s not easy, necessarily, doing what we’re doing,” Heidi says. “Agriculture is very risky, but we really are passionate about bringing quality food to the table and insuring folks know where their food comes from. For us, it’s pretty exciting.”

Jason Diestel makes sure feeders are kept clean to maintain the health of their turkey flock, because if one gets sick, it’s a good bet that the others will, too.

Creating a Quality Food Chain

The 50-acre main ranch is in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite, but growing about 100,000 healthy turkeys annually — considered a relatively small operation — requires the use of other farms as distant as the Midwest.

“With poultry operations, it’s important to have a lot of space between the farms. You want to make sure you keep that bio-security in check,” Heidi says. “The birds are grown in flocks. It’s just like kids. If one child becomes sick, probably the rest of your flock will at some point become sick.”

Diestel turkeys are not kept in pens, so the land also needs time to rest after flocks of roaming turkeys.

“That’s why we are with so many different farms, so we can let the sun cure the ground, give it time to breath and let nature do its work,” she says.

Also, the family grows more than one variety of turkey, making selections that allow birds to grow to natural, but marketable, weights. The range begins with a petite turkey, which when fully mature reaches a weight between 6 pounds and 10 pounds.

“It’s just like an extra, extra large chicken, if you will,” she says. “Then, our turkeys go in 2-pound weight increments up to 30-plus pounds.”

The process begins with day-old turkey poults. The baby birds at each farm go into houses filled with wood shavings.

“They’re nice and warm, and we give them lots of food,” she says. “If you’re a turkey farmer, you’re pretty much living with the birds and caring for them every hour, on the hour. You’re being that mom.”

At about the age of six weeks, the doors open and the turkeys can go outside.

“We’re giving the turkeys time to mature at a natural, slow rate,” she says. “That really helps them build their flavor and create the time for the muscle to develop appropriately. You don’t have fast growth and sloppy fat.”

Once the birds reach the age of about six months, they are taken to the ranch’s processing plants in California. In addition to selling whole birds, the company also produces deli meats, boneless breasts, and boneless roasts.

Diestel turkeys and other products are distributed in-store as far east as Louisiana, though some are shipped to the East Coast for the holiday season, Heidi says.

Besides selling whole birds, the company produces deli meats, boneless breasts, boneless roasts, and drumsticks.

Sustainable Practices

The operation goes beyond raising antibiotic-free birds and milling their own feed. The Diestel family also embraces sustainable farming practices that conserve water and limit waste going to landfills.

Jason Diestel, armed with an agri-business degree from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, was interested in learning how to convert the ranch’s waste to the best possible use. The result was an operation that composts the ranch’s feathers, manure, cardboard, and brush trimmings.

The ranch now produces about 5,000 yards of quality mulch each year, reducing by about 75 percent the material that would have gone to a landfill.

Similarly, the ranch began a water conservation program before California fell into the current, parching drought. All wastewater on the ranch is treated through a Zenon membrane, resulting in potable water used for clean up and washing equipment.

The emphasis on sustainability meshes with the ranch’s legacy.

“I asked the question our family has asked for 50 years,” Jason says. “How could we make the highest quality product possible from our existing materials?”


Noble Sprayberry is a Georgia writer.

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