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TELLING TOMS FROM HENS                        

Poultry sexers, many from Korea, practice the fine art of sorting male and female turkey chicks. They can spot minute differences with amazing speed -- and get paid quite well for their skill.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

So much depends on Tai Toelken, his false thumbnail and an almost mystical ability to draw a simple distinction 1,200 times an hour.

Toelken is what's known as a poultry sexer. His work is to detect the minuscule anatomical differences between newly hatched male and female turkey poults. And he's paid quite well to do it 2 million times a year.

In the business of birds, Toelken is a rare and coveted breed of worker.

So important is the task that specially trained sexers -- typically from Korea -- immigrate to do a job many poultry experts cannot. In fact, without the services of a few dozen sexers in Missouri, the state's thriving turkey industry would likely collapse.

That often strikes Toelken as fascinating when he sits down to sort birds at the Ag Forte hatchery in Neosho, Mo. The plant is a temple of poultry science and breeding technology, where a finely calibrated orchestra of gadgets harmonizes to hatch 11 million birds a year.

And yet the chain of automation is interrupted most days of the week so that Toelken and crew of six others can perform their decidedly low-tech task.

"We hold up the whole show, " he said. "It blows me away."

Small as pinpoints

Before the birds can nibble their first grain of feed en route to the dinner table, they must be sexed. Efficiency demands segregation.

Toms and hens mature at different rates, and once raised differ vastly in size. Vary their diet accordingly and you maximize yield.

Thus, the sexers of the Neosho hatchery form a kind of jury. Everything depends on a verdict that only they are qualified to reach.

They gather four times a week facing the walls of a bare white room. Stacked high in the middle are crates of the sparrow-size poults, hatched only hours earlier. Their sole equipment is a stool or chair, and perhaps a false thumbnail like the one Toelken depends on.

And yet, they are tools enough to sort an astounding volume of poults.

Give the Neosho sexers just one eight-hour shift and they will sort 55,000 birds, more than enough for every seat in Busch Stadium. Give them a year and they'll sort a fourth of the birds needed to adorn the nation's Thanksgiving tables. Along the way, fewer than 2 percent of birds will be misidentified.

The polite term for the process the sexers use to perform their feat is the "vent method." But there's nothing polite about the anatomy to which the word "vent" refers. It is the orifice that serves as both a digestive and reproductive tract.

The only way to reveal the gender is to open the vent. So each bird must be handled one-by-one, flipped gently, fanny toward the light and squeezed to reveal its hidden identity. But not just any squeeze will do. Therein lies the expertise.

"Not enough pressure and the formation doesn't pop out, " said Toelken. "Too much and you can hurt the bird."

Which is where the false thumbnail comes in. It's trimmed to just the right length to allow Toelken to push the bird's belly. What emerges from the vent is an eraser-size button bearing the secret.

To the sexers, the distinctions are obvious. Toelken points to them as if they are the boldest markings in the world. In fact, the two tiny bumps that denote a male are as small as pinpoints.

Francine Bradley has researched poultry at the University of California at Davis for decades. Even so, she and the other faculty are powerless to sex a bird. The university hires a professional to sort the lab flocks.

Rick Vanderspek, president of the Ag Forte hatcheries, said that with help he can see the differences between toms and hens. But he's confounded by the stamina of the experts.

"They literally must go into a trance to get that kind of speed and continue doing it for 8 to 9 hours, " he said.

Vanderspek said it takes a certain kind of worker to tolerate the tedium and the mess.

Those dirty realities are obvious looking at the Neosho sexers. Before they can open a vent they often must clear the digestive tract, squeezing the bird to discard the droppings into a container. By the end of a shift, the sexers' hands, aprons and hair are splattered green.

And yet, despite the grime, the sexers see dignity in the work. For many, it's more than a vital skill, but an avenue to come to the United States, make a life and perhaps even send kids to college.

All in the family

Sexers earn just a few pennies for each bird they sort, but that can add up to $200 a day and perhaps a $1,000 a week -- more than three times what other hatchery workers might earn.

That kind of money drew Mee Y Jung to emigrate from Korea seven years ago to work in the Neosho plant. She followed an aunt, who promised her good money. Hatchery officials say most sexers working today are Korean and are trained and recruited by family members.

Beyond the money, Toelken and others talk of sexing as a kind of art form, a last standout in a process that is almost entirely automated. And no one speaks more passionately about the profession than Charles Tagami, who oversees the sexing operation at the Neosho plant.

For Tagami, poultry sexing is the story of his family. His father, a second-generation Japanese-American, learned the trade at a school in Japan months before the invasion of Pearl Harbor. Once back in the United States, he was able to leave a Japanese internment camp because he had a skill needed in the Midwest.

Tagami's father used sexing to earn his way through college and become a prominent chemist. Years later, he thought of sexing as a perfect trade for his son, who had an independent streak and a desire to work on his own.

So the chemist father and his long-haired surfer son purchased 100 birds and began training in their San Diego garage. Tagami has been sexing ever since.

Toelken's sexing history also traces back to that same garage. Through family connections he persuaded the elder Tagami to teach him the trade.

Now Toelken and Tagami are among the most experienced sexers in the nation. Each say they gained a kind of instinct after handling a couple million birds, one that has allowed them to shave off fractions of seconds, adding dozens, hundreds and thousands to their count.

But they wonder how long their art will live on.

A dying trade?

None of the 11 sexers Toelken has trained have stuck with the profession. While the pay is relatively good, the salaries have stagnated. The sexers work as independent contractors, requiring them to cover their own health care.

Toelken's nephew Kenji Bearchum, 18, has worked in Neosho for the past few years but is on the fence about whether to continue.

Some days Bearchum can't believe he's earned $100 by lunchtime; other days he longs for something more. Toelken said his nephew will be gone in two weeks.

More ominous than the recruiting problems is the technological race to make manual sexing obsolete.

Such advances have already eroded the chicken sexing industry. There, genetic breakthroughs have produced feather variations between the genders, making it possible for anyone to sort the differences.

Tom Savage, a poultry scientist at Oregon State University, has worked years to develop feather sexing for turkeys.

Savage, a staunch defender of the intelligence of turkeys who admits to talking to flocks, said he admires the art that the sexers practice. But he said the process can be stressful on the birds. He sees trauma in the eyes of young poults who have just been sorted.

Savage said he's isolated the feathering gene in turkeys, but the results have been spotty. Still, he's sure a breakthrough is coming. Already, one company is working to sort birds while they're still in the egg; others want to even change the bird's sex so all hatch as toms.

Tagami, who has tracked the research, said Mother Nature seems to conspire against the efforts. Even so, he and Toelken are resigned to the fact that the trade won't last forever.

"I just hope it doesn't happen soon, " Toelken said.

The distraction of being interviewed isn't enough to slow down the 20-year veteran, who sorts a new tray of 100 poults every five minutes.

By midafternoon, the crew will have divided the day's fraternity of toms and sorority of hens. And the room that had roared with a storm of chirps will be silent.

But at least for now, Toelken knows that when he returns in the morning with a fresh apron and clean hands he will be greeted by the familiar and deafening chorus of the newly hatched.

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