This out-of-place turkey farm sells 5,000 turkeys a year—and brings neighbors together over the tradition.
LIVONIA—Nestled in-between cemetery and subdivision, a bold sign announces: “Fresh Dressed. Corn Fed. Organically Raised.” And as soon as you see it, Roperti’s Turkey Farm is in the rearview mirror and you’re driving 45 miles per hour down Five Mile Road, wondering what a turkey farm is doing in the middle of one of Detroit’s largest suburbs.
It’s a different story, though, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Traffic backs up on the Livonia stretch, with amateur chefs—worried that they’ll miss the turn—slowing the morning commute to a crawl.
Out on the six-acre turkey farm, owner Christine Roperti calls to her husband, Wesley Bates. It’s his job to manage traffic as cars pull into the make-shift gravel lot squeezed between a house and barn. Roperti points to a driver having trouble navigating.
“See what her name is,” Roperti shouts to Bates, and turns to her check-in list.
The driver is likely a new customer at Roperti Turkey Farm. “We get about 600 new ones each year,” Roperti says, largely from word-of-mouth advertising or sheer curiosity at a sore-thumb turkey farm in the middle of Livonia. The repeats—numbering around 4,000 this year—know exactly where to park, who to talk to, and to bring cash or check only.
As people line up in the building where the birds are cleaned, prepped and bagged, staff members remain composed—they know the drill. Side by side stand people with 30 years, 25 years, and 22 years of turkey-selling experience. They man the cash register, the bagging station, and the check-in line.
“We all like each other, too, which helps,” says Lauren Gauvin, who’s been working at the farm for 22 years. “Sometimes,” dead-pans Rick Pary, who’s got three years on her.
These folks aren’t turkey farmers. They’re family friends—or, in some cases, grown children of family friends—who’ve taken vacation days from their jobs to help Roperti sell turkeys.
The shifts start at 5:30 a.m. and can go until sunset, Roperti notes, but no one seems unhappy to be there. Quite the opposite. There’s a buzz around the small building—a swell of energy ahead of the holidays.
“$108.21,” says Arminda Villelle, the 30-year veteran behind the cash register.
“I don’t want to pay that much. I didn’t want to go over $108.20,” jokes the customer, handing over five twenties and a ten.
Sure enough, Villelle hands him a dollar and 80 cents back, despite the jokester’s insistence that she can keep the penny.
These are friendly interactions between familiar faces, even if customer and cashier don’t always know each other’s name. That’s the ethos here at Roperti’s.
Outside the building and just beyond the parking lot is the house where Christine Roperti was born. Her parents, Tom and Mary, were first-generation Italian immigrants who opened Roperti Turkey Farm in 1948.
Before that, they had cows and chickens, once even making an appearance on “Milky,” an old metro Detroit TV show. The farmland that seems so out of place on Five Mile Road now was, at the time, surrounded by other farms and orchards. When the Ropertis decided to switch to turkeys in ’48, they brought in 50 birds. Within a year they had 100, and 1,000 the year after that.
Now, Christine Roperti has 4,400 that she sells for Thanksgiving and about 500 more for Christmas. She gets the turkeys when they’re 10 months old and harvests them two and a half months later.
Inside the barn is a process that runs like clockwork, where the birds are slaughtered, stripped of their feathers, and inspected, among other steps, by the farm’s 40 employees.
The hiring rule, Roperti says, is “you only end up here if you know someone here.”
The 77-year-old takes pride in how she runs her business—it’s like a family, she says. “If you treat them well, they’ll treat you well.”
The model works for retaining employees as well as it does for keeping customers. Roperti’s patrons are fiercely loyal, paying $4.49-per-pound for local, organically fed, free-range birds. It’s a 50 cent uptick from last year, but worth it, regulars say.
Joe Hemming has been coming to Roperti’s for 25 years. He makes the trip in from Beverly Hills—two interstate offshoot exchanges and 15-20 miles of sprawly travel away from the farm. On Tuesday, it’s in the opposite direction from his meeting in Lansing, but he doesn’t care; he’s not risking his order and dropping down to the first-come, first-served arrangement on Wednesday.
“I think it’s just a stitch that we have a turkey farm in the middle of Livonia, so I come down here every time, and you know you’re going to get it fresh,” he said.
Merida Roperti, 21, is on the line this year, tagging and weighing in turkeys. Christine’s granddaughter has helped out with tasks like this since she was 11, back when she could only work weekends because she had to be back in school on Mondays.
That’s how you know there’s something different about the Roperti farm, she jokes: Even harvest days don’t come before school.
Now, Merida takes night classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, freeing up her days for turkey business. All of the turkey-weighing makes for a good workout before classes, but she says she’ll have to catch up on sleep come Thursday.
“I have a much different November than most people,” she says.
Merida says she likes to come to the farm to help with the turkeys, or just to hang out with her grandmother. She lives right down the street.
The farm is where the Ropertis will gather on Thursday for their own Thanksgiving dinner, famously marked by filet mignon and crab legs—no turkey. Every year, Roperti sends a bird down to her sister in Florida in exchange for fresh seafood.
“We’re a little turkeyed out by then,” Merida says.
After a brief respite in the nonstop traffic, the line for turkeys once again wraps out the door of the barn. It’s back to business, and employees who were on break head back to their stations.
Roperti joins them. These are the days that make her most happy, helping move the 25-pound birds through the stations while engaging in neighborly chatter.
“I love selling my turkeys, because they make my customers happy,” she says. “We need more good food in this country.”