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Fading flock | Exotic Newcastle disease is the latest blow to the once-thriving Ramona poultry industry
[2,3 Edition]
The San Diego Union - Tribune - San Diego, Calif.
Author: Elizabeth Fitzsimons
Date: Jan 12, 2003
Start Page: B.4
Section: LOCAL
Text Word Count: 1501
Document Text

RAMONA -- When exotic Newcastle disease was detected in a commercial chicken flock here last month, it was the news county poultry ranchers had been dreading.

It was also the latest blow to industry that since the 1920s has been synonymous with Ramona, but which has been declining for decades.

Although not much in evidence now, the poultry business was once a integral part of Ramona life. The town was once the unofficial turkey capital of the world. Ramona-brand turkey meat, as well as eggs sold to turkey ranches, was widely sought and distributed.

The Ramona Turkey Growers Association claimed 123 members at its height in the 1930s. Thousands converged on Collier Park for Turkey Day each November until World War II, when gasoline rationing put an end to the carousel rides, aerial stunts and a parade.

"The chickens kind of took over where the turkeys left, and now the chickens are just about gone now," said Darrell Beck, a longtime Ramona resident who is writing a book on the town's history.

The chicken business thrived into the 1970s, the last time the deadly exotic Newcastle infected commercial flocks in California.

That outbreak, detected in 1971 and eradicated three years later, forced authorities to destroy almost 12 million birds and quarantine eight counties. Fighting the disease cost $56 million, which would be equivalent to about $239 million today, said Larry Cooper, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The disease infects birds, but does not harm humans.

Since the latest exotic Newcastle outbreak was discovered in October in Los Angeles County, more than 1.2 million chickens have been ordered destroyed in Southern California, including 73,000 at Ramona Egg Enterprises Inc. on Old Julian Road. State and federal officials declared a state of emergency last week, and expanded a quarantine area to include all of Southern California, where more than 9 million of the state's 12 million egg-laying hens are located.

The latest outbreak is the second that Charley and Maria Steiner have faced at their ranch, Swiss Mountain View Egg Farm.

The couple went into business in 1970, when there were about 50 poultry ranches in the Ramona area. There are only four now. Some Ramona ranches were ruined by the exotic Newcastle outbreak in the '70s, but more were phased out as a result of the town's slow transition from farm town to suburbia.

As Ramona's population increased, ranches failed or were closed when their owners found they could make more money by selling their property than by raising chickens on it.

"We had about 4,000 people here in 1966 and now we have something like 45,000 people. And people don't mix with agriculture. They don't like chickens, they don't like smells," Charley Steiner said.

"They have driven agriculture to the wall and out of business."

Turkey ranching was already established in Ramona in the 1920s, but the next two decades were its heyday.

An Oct. 27, 1922 article in the Ramona Sentinel , headlined "Turkey raising is very profitable in Ramona Valley," extolled the virtues of the area for raising the quirky birds.

"Mr. C.H. Wilken, who has been in the business here for seven or eight years, states that the valley is, on account of its altitude and temperature, an ideal country for commercial turkey raising," the article said. "The young turkey is a delicate bird and will not do well in any climate not adapted to his welfare.

"In a wet and foggy country he absolutely refuses to live, and in any climate, no matter how favorable generally, he will relinquish his life without a struggle if exposed to wet and cold. Therefore a climate like this, that is dry and mild, with much sunlight, is better adapted to turkey raising than any other known."

By the 1930s, turkey ranching was thriving in Ramona. Beck, the history writer, moved to the town with his parents and younger brother in 1943, and his father decided to go into the turkey business. He built four octagonal brooder houses, where the poults, or young turkeys, were kept warm under propane-fired incubators. He built the buildings with eight sides because the poults tended to crowd into tight corners, suffocating each other. Octagonal brooder houses had wider corners.

"The turkey industry kept going after the war," Beck said. "But as with every business in agriculture, people want to move to the country, but they don't want the smells of agriculture."

In 1959, Ramona's last turkey ranch closed.

There were various reasons for the turkey industry's demise, according to "Ramona & Roundabout: A History of San Diego County's Little-known Back Country," by Charles R. LeMenager, who lives in Ramona. Eastern growers gained a competitive advantage by learning how to stimulate turkeys into laying eggs earlier, and the poult business was taken over by the big feed companies, which were able to meet that demand more competitively.

A booming San Diego County also brought higher land prices and property taxes, and that meant higher and more prohibitive costs for raising grain for feed.

Beck's family raised turkeys for three years before giving up. Two of the four octagonal buildings are still standing in Beck's back yard off Harper Road. Two old incubators, which hung from the ceilings of the brooder houses, rest in the yard nearby.

Beyond the back yard, there is empty, grassy space where his father's grown turkeys were housed. Beyond that and across Elm Street are the now-empty chicken houses that were, until just a few months ago, part of Armstrong Farms.

Residents, some of whom formed the Coalition for a Cleaner Ramona, complained that the farm was poorly managed and failed to deal properly with flies and odor. Beck recalled how, on a windy day, the foul smell would waft into the neighboring cemetery, overwhelming people gathered for a burial.

After years of complaints, a judge ordered the Armstrong to comply with county ordinances or be fined. But Armstrong Farms sold the ranch and another in Ramona, saying it just wasn't economical to operate chicken ranches built in the 1930s. The ranches, which covered a total of about 20 acres, will be replaced by houses.

Signs of Ramona's close ties to the poultry industry still endure. On state Route 78 just outside of town, there is the mammoth Pine Hill Egg Ranch, home to 1.1 million chickens and a drive-through egg stand, which people have been known to travel many miles to reach.

A showy remnant of Ramona's turkey past is the large neon turkey above the doorway to the Turkey Inn on Main Street.

Despite its name, and much to the disappointment of many a tourist who drops in, the Turkey Inn does not have beds. Nor does it serve turkey dinners. It does, however, serve Wild Turkey and other alcoholic drinks and boasts the distinction of holding the county's second-oldest liquor license, after the Waterfront in San Diego's Little Italy. A regular customer was the world-famous rodeo champion Casey Tibbs.

The Turkey Inn was first a soda fountain but became a bar after Prohibition ended in 1933. It has been a meeting place for old- timers and turkey ranchers back in the day, for some as much a gathering place as the Town Hall. Beck remembers sitting outside the inn during the 1940s, waiting for his grandfather, who was enjoying a drink inside.

"I get all the old guys, and I love it," said Colette Crain, who works the day shift. Among her favorites are a father and son, ages 94 and 73.

"A lot of people come in and think they're going to have a turkey dinner or a room," said Crain, who has worked at the Turkey Inn for 11 years.

After she tells them it's a bar, she said, they often stay for a drink. Some ask about its history. Other take pictures of the neon turkey outside, one of the last reminders of the town's history as Turkey Capital of the World.

Credit: STAFF WRITER

Abstract (Document Summary)

4 PICS; 1. The sign at the Turkey Inn on Main Street hearkens back to the days when [Ramona] was the unofficial turkey capital of the world. To some tourists' disappointment, the inn has no beds and does not serve turkey dinners. 2. Ramona's first Turkey Day on Nov. 4, 1933, was attended by 3,000 people and featured footraces, turkey catching and rolling-pin marksmanship. The last Turkey Day in 1941 attracted 30,000 people, before wartime gasoline rationing ended the festival. 3. A.P. Holly Jr., Walter Boortz and Thomas Donahue (from left) posed with turkeys at the Ramona Turkey Day on Nov. 4, 1939. The annual event once drew thousands of people to the area. 4. Mary Kay Pinkard worked six months in 1939 on this gown made of 7,200 turkey feathers for Turkey Day in Ramona. The dress was featured in national magazines, including Life. (B-5); Credit: 1. John Gastaldo / Union-Tribune 3. 4. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society 5. Union-Tribune file photo

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