Temperatures are beginning to cool, harvest is wrapping up and the holiday season is just around the corner. Meanwhile, just 15 minutes from Downtown Santa Rosa, 35,000 turkeys cover the hillsides and cluster under oaks as they fill out and fatten for their debut on your Thanksgiving dinner table.
Willie Bird Turkeys are ranch raised by the Benedetti family. The fourth-generation Sonoma County ranchers’ premium turkeys are Sonoma County-grown, free range and fed a diet of organic grains.
The Broad Breasted Whites are fed from the Benedetti’s 1942 Burmese Jeep that has been converted into a feed wagon that fills 800 lb. hoppers with grain for the vast flock on the Benedetti’s property on Calistoga Road. Riley Benedetti said that the old bomber truck is the same one that was used when he and his brother, Willie Benedetti, were kids. Willie, the founder of Willie
Bird Turkeys, recently passed away at the age of 69.
Riley said that turkeys are the first thing he remembers.
“Our turkey farm is where we grew up,” Riley said. “As long as I can remember my family has been involved in the turkey business.”
The Benedetti family originally raised fertile eggs for breeding on their ranch in Petaluma.
How then did the Benedetti family become so well-known for their premium Willie Bird turkeys?
Rocky Koch, Willie’s cousin said that without Future Farmers of America, Willie Bird Turkeys probably wouldn’t even exist.
“Willie started the business as his Future Farmers project because his father and uncle were in the turkey business,” Rocky said.
Willie and his mother hatched a plan that would grow a young FFAers project into a successful company spanning over 50 years and counting in Sonoma County.
“My mother told me that she took Willie into Petaluma without telling my father, Walter Benedetti,” Riley said. “They got the fertile eggs in April and my father didn’t find out, according to my mom, until they hatched.”
After those poults hatched, Willie didn’t look back. The freshman at Sonoma Valley High School set in motion a business that transitioned his family’s farm from raising fertile eggs for breeding to one raising turkeys for the dinner table.
Riley, who said he recently found a copy of the original letter from the Valley of the Moon Hatchery from 1963 describing the purchase of 800 eggs that projected to have 400-500 poults, said that Willie was just 14 years old when he started the business.
“No one thought Willie Bird Turkeys would be this big, no way, absolutely not,” Riley said.
The iconic Willie Bird turkeys, surprisingly, got their name in a beauty salon.
“My mother was working at John King’s Beauty Salon in Petaluma, and her coworker, Beverly, would tease Willie when he brought turkeys into the salon to sell,” Riley said. “She would say, ‘Here’s the Willie bird coming!’”
The name caught on.
In time, Willie Benedetti, his brother, Riley, and their cousin, Rocky Koch, were raising tens of thousands of Willie Bird turkeys for sale around the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Today, the family owns and operates the iconic Benedetti Farms and the Willie Bird’s Restaurant.
In years past, Willie Bird Turkeys raised over 50,000 birds a year. Now, turkeys are almost exclusively raised for Thanksgiving and Christmas and a few other are raised for the Easter market and other occasions.
“Our turkeys are consuming a lot of feed right now because it’s almost time to go to market,” Riley said. “Then we ship them down to the valley to get processed. We used to be able to do it right here on the ranch, but we got too big.”
Rocky said that each year they get their shipments of turkeys in May and June. Each flock that arrives grows out to be different sizes with the first group being the heaviest. Their sizes range from 10-12 lb. bird to a 18-20 lb. bird.
Willie Bird Turkeys have a reputation for high quality, which is why Rocky said he thinks people are willing to pay a price premium for their products.
In addition to the whole-body turkey business, the family owns and operates the restaurant in Santa Rosa since 1980 and keeps the grill hot for their signature smoked and then grilled turkey legs at the Sonoma County Fair and the Wednesday Night Market.
“I started doing the Wednesday Night Market, which was originally the Thursday Night Market, 30 years ago with just three Weber grills,” Riley said. “I started that first year and I’ve never missed a market.”
Riley, who currently manages the partnership between Willie Bird Turkeys and William-Sonoma, said that for the past 20 years Willie Bird Turkeys have been shipped to customers in 48 states.
The first year of the partnership about three or four hundred turkeys were shipped. This year’s projections have 8,600 turkeys set to be delivered to homes across the country.
“It means a lot to me to know that something Willie started, and we have been a part of all these years has already hit its 50-year marker and will continue on into the future even though Willie is gone now,” Riley said.
Riley said that Willie was a likeable person who made friends well and that he will be dearly missed.
“In school, sports, and business, everything he did really, he was friendly and social,” Riley said. “He always worked hard and loved being at the restaurant and talking to everybody.”
He said it feels good to know that they have been able to keep something going that everyone in Sonoma County loves and that they provide a product that ends up on family’s dinner tables for special times like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To place an order for you family’s Thanksgiving turkey visit the Willie Birds Store in Santa Rosa or call (707) 545-2832