Washington Township woman savors family’s turkey farm tradition
A bottle of wine, loaves of bread, a statue and even a butter sculpture of a turkey.
Those are just some of the gifts Vicki Olexa has received in the past few days.
But that’s the way it is for a leading area provider of fresh, farm-raised turkeys.
It’s been 20 years since the death of her father, Matt Helon. But Olexa has kept the turkey-raising tradition of Helon Farm in Washington Township alive and well.
“It brings my dad back to me every year,” Olexa said. “This was his dream. I still have vivid memories of him being there with the turkeys … him, me and our crew. He’s been gone 20 years now, and a lot of the people still talk about him when they come. I know he’s still out there with us every year.”
Helon, a Monessen native, took up farming because he loved animals. He moved to the farm and started raising turkeys in 1950, the year after he and Olexa’s mother, Adele, now 89, got married.
Since then, it’s been a family tradition. But it goes beyond that for Olexa.
“It’s everyone else’s family tradition,” she said of the turkey endeavor.
“It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting that comes to life. Just about every person that comes in gives a hug and tells us that they can’t wait to see us again next year.”
The people matter most to Olexa.
“It’s like we are a part of their families. We are a part of their family traditions,” she added. “A lot of people can’t wait until the day they go up to Helon’s Farm and pick up their turkeys. That’s what is so special.”
Back in July, 240 turkey chicks arrived at the farm.
Now, only 10 remain. Call it a reprieve – until Christmas.
“Those 10 got their amnesty,” Olexa said with a laugh. “I usually give them as gifts for Christmas.”
On Saturday, a crew of 15 people arrived at the farm to process 230 turkeys.
“It’s a big day for us,” Olexa said. “We have different people doing different things. We get a catered lunch for everyone, and it’s become an annual thing.”
Most of the Helon Farm crew members are retirees who have been helping for years.
Slaughtering took place Saturday and Sunday. The freshly plucked and processed turkeys were soaked and put on ice until Monday, when packing and pickup began.
“It gets pretty steady starting on Monday, people coming to pick up their turkeys,” Olexa said.
Olexa said that as of Tuesday night, about 50 were left in the freezer awaiting pickup.
Her husband, Mike, began delivering the birds Monday. Some turkeys faced an early exit, which allowed them to be shipped in time for Thursday’s feast. Olexa said turkeys have been shipped as far as Florida.
“I have some really great friends, some that help out with the processing and some that continue to order from miles away,” she said.
The waiting list for a Helon Farm turkey has grown over the years.
“Anybody can run out to Giant Eagle or somewhere else and get a turkey. There’s no meaning behind that,” Olexa said. “It makes me feel so good that I am a part of so many people’s Thanksgiving traditions.
“People that came years ago; now their kids and grandkids are coming to get turkeys.”
The biggest bird this year was a 41-pound beast, with a 38-pounder picked up Tuesday.
“We haven’t had anything under 18 pounds,” Olexa said. “I could probably sell 100 more with no problem. But, when you get too big, the quality goes down.”
And quality is what brings customers back year after year.
“We came in Monday night, and we were walking kind of slow and sore,” Olexa said of her and her husband. “But I plan on doing it as long as we can.”
Olexa isn’t sure if her son, Mikey, 17, or her son-in-law, Dom DeCarlo, 29, is interested in the family business. DeCarlo is married to the Olexas’ daughter, Christie, 29.
“It’s a commitment. It starts in July, and you have to dedicate morning, noon and night. It’s more than just deciding, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to raise some turkeys,’” she said with a laugh. “I would hope one of them would want to take over, but I’m going to continue doing it as long as I can.”
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2667.