After 63 years in the turkey business, Don Peterson isn't squeamish about much. But when it comes to grabbing a turkey chick and squeezing it until its rectum pops out, he'd just as soon call in the experts.
"I can do it, but it sure isn't easy," says Peterson. Unfortunately, it's also critical that this undignified procedure be done in the first few hours of a bird's life in order to make the crucial distinction between male and female birds, which grow at different rates. Enter the turkey sexers, who are fast becoming an endangered species in Colorado.
Peterson's Turkey Farm in Lakewood quit hiring sexers fifteen years ago when the turkey profit margin narrowed, Peterson explains; his outfit now buys the chicks presexed from out of state. In fact, only four turkey sexers remain in Colorado--all of them elderly and of Japanese origin.
"The Japanese sexers, they, uh, invert the turkeys' rear ends, if you see what I mean," Peterson explains. "They're better at it, because their hands are smaller and it doesn't hurt the turkeys so much."
Here's a more detailed description from a term paper written a dozen years ago by Denver private investigator Scott Keating, who watched turkey sexer Fred Sasamoto at work at a now-defunct hatchery: "If you slow down Sasamoto's hands, you can see that he is actually doing five specific things with each bird. He pulls a chick from a doughy mass of soft feathers. He wraps the bird in his palm and only its teeny beak is visible. Keeping the chick upright, he gently squeezes the bird until a green stream of fecal matter spurts into a coffee can in the middle of the table. It sounds like someone shooting a squirt gun into a bucket of water."
By turning these two-hour-old turkeys upside down and gazing into their rectums, Sasamoto is able to discern the very subtle difference between male and female. It is not a simple distinction to make, but Sasamoto has what it takes--he can breeze through up to 2,000 chicks per hour.
Sasamoto and his wife, Hisako, have been sexing for thirty years. Now nearing retirement, they work just twice a week. The days are long and the outlook grim. "A long time ago," Sasamoto says, "turkey was a high-tone dinner. Now, not. Poultry industry is a poor industry."
Sasamoto and his wife work for Longmont Foods, the state's largest turkey producer and its only hatchery. "They don't do Thanksgiving turkey," Sasamoto says. "They just do cut-up turkey, turkey ham, turkey franks. We sex because they just want Toms. Toms get big--20, 25 pounds. Hens small. Too small. But the best thing," he decides, "is to come down to the hatchery and watch. It's easier than explaining."
It's also impossible. Terry Summer, Longmont Foods' hatchery manager, says he can't allow visitors to watch the sexing operations for fear they might have a diseased pet bird at home whose latest virus could infect the Longmont chicks.
The hatchery's head sexer is Ted Fukumoto. He cannot talk about his craft, however, because "he sleep," his wife says. "He sex all night."
More forthcoming, if equally weary, is Joe Pocius, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Turkey Federation in Reston, Virginia. "Can I sex turkeys? No," Pocius says. "It's a skill that needs to be acquired." It's also important to apply that skill while turkeys are young, he adds, because when they're mature, "you have to run all over the place trying to catch them, and that's very time-consuming. Vent sexing works better."
"Well, you know, it's named after their, uh, vent."
According to Pocius, the nation's largest aggregation of turkey growers is in Mt. Olive, North Carolina, where, he suggests, someone may know more about the sexing life. And sure enough, an ex-janitor named Dan in the egg-packing room at Carolina Turkeys is familiar with the concept. Actually, he once considered turkey sexing as a career--he'd heard that a good sexer could make up to $40 an hour--but was dissuaded because the job involves "looking into a turkey's butt."
Dan's boss, Niv Ansims, gets on the line to say that the National Turkey Federation is wrong: Landisville, Pennsylvania, is really the turkey-sexing capital of North America. Ansims produces the phone number of the interestingly named Amchick, which he calls "the largest broker of independent sexing crews in America."
"We are in the middle of a demonstration for a copier machine," snaps the Amchick receptionist. "We absolutely cannot talk to you. The sexers we hire know what they're doing. We do not have to tell them how."
Pennsylvania bureaucrats are no more enlightening. "Tell her there is an agricultural school in her own state," screams (through his secretary) a Pennsylvania Office of Education czar. "Tell her there is an agricultural school in her own state! She can call them, and they can tell her anything about turkeys she wants to know! Tell her if she is from Colorado, she has no reason to call Pennsylvania!"
But he is wrong. Colorado State University's division of poultry science closed down nine years ago for lack of interest. And even when it was up and running, it did not have its own turkey expert--as Penn State does.
The head of the ag school there is Bill Weaver, who confesses to being fascinated with the mysterious lives of turkey sexers. "Here I am, a scientist," he says, "and I can't tell the sex of a turkey one bit unless I open it up with a knife."
Weaver has caught wind of rumors that there's a clandestine turkey-sexing school operating in his state. "I've heard it's not a school so much as a group of Japanese sexers who work somewhere near Philadelphia," he clarifies. "They train their own, and it is kind of a closed fraternity, as you probably know all too well."
Weaver's official Turkey Specialist is Mike Hulet. Although Hulet says he knows nothing more about the mysterious sexing school, he obligingly faxes off a copy of "A Technique for the Sex Determination of Chicks," published by Thomas H. Canfield in May 1944. A quick reading reveals that "practice chicks may be used over and over again." Care must be taken, however, especially if the novice sexer is right-handed, because "beginners invariably injure chicks, because of too much tension, in consequence of which many are strangled." Also, Canfield reported, it is best to undertake turkey sexing in a calm and darkened room.
Speaking of darkened rooms, Ted Fukumoto finally emerges from his. "That school in Pennsylvania," he says, "it shut down." And apparently with good reason. "Sexing is not a good profession anymore," Fukumoto adds. "Too much competition. There's a Korean guy in town; he came here from Utah with his sexing crew. He'll do anything to get a job. And then there's a lot of housewives and Mexicans learning how. I want to get out."
Fukumoto's hero is Fred Aoki, who did just that.
"Turkey sexing? Turkey sexing? It's been a long time since I do anything like that," laughs Aoki, speaking securely from the Akebono Restaurant, which he has owned and operated since 1960.
Born in California, Aoki was sent by his parents to Japan in 1935 to discover the secrets of poultry sexing. He was sixteen and learned his trade--starting out on chickens--in a record three months. After that, Aoki was deployed to Clinton, Missouri, which at one time was the hatchery capital of the world, he says. "And poultry people have never heard of such a thing as a sexer," he recalls. "They don't think such a thing is possible."
Aoki did very well for himself in Missouri: He drove to bowling outings in his brand-new Chrysler and made nearly $2,500 every four-month turkey season. Other hatchery workers, he remembers, were lucky to clear $12 per week.
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In 1942 Aoki moved to Denver where, as the city's first sexer, he was considered too valuable for incarceration in a Japanese internment camp. After the war, while still working as a freelance sexer, he started Fred's Place, a Japanese restaurant at the corner of Larimer and 19th streets. It quickly became a sexers' hangout.
After Sakura Square was built 35 years ago, Aoki opened Akebono. By then, he says, "the grass seems greener somewhere else whenever I am sexing." And so he gave it up.
Like almost everyone else in Denver, Aoki will eat turkey this Thanksgiving. The bird never appears on the Akebono menu, however, and months pass during which the large, awkward bird never crosses his mind. "You may call me a happily retired sexer," he says. "I don't miss it.