You should have ordered your holiday birds back in September when the signs advertising turkeys appeared. Unfortunately, there are those who insist on waiting until the last minute, indignant when informed they will have to procure a bird with a less-than stellar provenance or take what is available. I know the slackers are out there. They’ve showed up at my stand asking about ordering turkeys and my answer is NO! I hate those darn things. They are proof that the dinosaurs did not go extinct. Tyrannosaurus Rex turned into a turkey. After my little tirade, I politely point in the direction of vendors offering turkeys and to prove my point add, “You can’t pay me enough to ever raise turkeys again.”
It’s been 25 years since I first ventured into pastured poultry production. The flagship gobblers were gorgeous Bourbon Reds grown in an orchard feasting on citrus and avocados. I took orders for a dozen birds from friends and co-workers, plus two for me and two to my friend, Nancy, who helped with butchering.
We processed the birds in my back yard on a sunny southern California afternoon while sipping wine, listening to music and plucking poultry by hand. It was idyllic, the first seeds luring me away from technology and into agriculture. Oh what fun I was going to have.
The bug that had bitten me led me back home to Pennsylvania where farms were affordable. Shortly after moving east I purchased a dozen turkey poults (baby chicks) from a local hatchery. Unfortunately, I failed to understand the distinction between heritage and production birds. Unlike my previous turkeys, these were the Broad Breasted Whites used in the region’s commercial turkey houses and came with their beaks, snoods (that dangly thing that hangs over their beaks) and toes clipped off to prevent fighting and cannibalism in overcrowded conditions.
By late summer the turkeys had already reached their harvest weight. At Thanksgiving the smallest bird barely fit into my oven, fed my family including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother, and provided leftovers. The heritage birds from the previous year has lived the same amount of time and were a fraction of the size.
With several birds still in the barnyard, I decided to overwinter them hoping for eggs to hatch in an incubator. There were six hens and two toms. Everyone lived in harmony until Valentine’s Day. Nothing ruins a romantic evening like the fighting of two barnyard titans clashing, the loser requiring an emergency butchering in sub-freezing weather. Trying to break up a fight between a pair of angry male turkeys is every bit as dangerous as getting between fighting dogs. Not all the blood shed that day belonged to the birds. Still, I ventured on with the survivor and his harem.
When spring arrived, the hens began laying eggs. Excitedly I gathered them, loading them into the incubator and then after several days, candling each egg to check for a growing embryo—zilch, nada, zero, zip. None of the eggs were fertile.
I didn’t get it. The hens lined up with their tail feathers in the air, cloacas exposed, ready and willing. The tom strutted around in awkward attempts at copulation but appeared only to be giving good wing. Dismayed at an entire season without a single fertilized egg, I called the hatchery from where I had procured the poults and got a lesson in industrial turkey production. Every single Broad Breasted White turkey is artificially inseminated because they’ve been bred (not genetically engineered) for generations to have unnaturally large breasts that prevent natural breeding–all because Americans demanded more white meat.
Not one for failure, I did my homework and settled on a Standard Bronze variety—the halfway bird between true heritage and commercial. I had come to terms with not hatching my own turkeys by now and focused instead on growing and selling.
The following spring, 50 day-old poults arrived in late June. As with all young birds, turkeys must be brooded, meaning kept warm until their downy fluff turns into feathers. It takes about a month. They were kept on the enclosed front porch in a commercial brooder until the entire house stank of turkey poop. That was the signal to put them in the barn. The plan was to keep them in one of the stalls for a few days to acclimate them to being without added heat before turning them into the barnyard. After the first day, there were two poults with their heads chewed off. By the end of the week, 16 had been decapitated.
Poults aren’t cheap, with the fancier heritage birds commanding between $5-10 each. Add in a month of feed and mortality can quickly start eating into the profits. Before I realized it was my beloved pet cat causing the devastation, she had eaten nearly a thousand dollars of potential profit. Not to be deterred, a cat-proof coop was constructed to accommodate the growing poults until they were too big for a feline takedown. Keeping the kitty locked in the house helped, too, but was not pleasant for all involved parties except the turkeys.
Harvest time arrived in November only it was not a balmy afternoon, but a slap-in-the-face winter day so cold that water froze in the hose during processing. The only consolation was the warm wet feathers during the plucking that kept my fingers from frostbite.
But customers showed up purchasing all except two turkeys I kept for myself. They were elated to be buying a locally raised bird direct from the farmer.
By the following year I had dipped my toes into a local farmers market. I increased the numbers to 75 birds and went about figuring out how to get them processed more efficiently. At a potluck for local farmers striking out into sustainable agriculture and direct marketing, I met a family who had built an outdoor pastured poultry processing facility. The agreed to help me with processing.
Each year I would load all the turkeys into my stock trailer the Monday prior to Thanksgiving and head down the road returning to the farm with all my birds neatly cleaned, bagged, weighed, tagged and iced down in 100 gallon stock tanks ready to be picked up at the farm on Tuesday and then taken to farmers market on Wednesday.
When I began attending markets in the DC area, however, this schedule no longer worked. Now I had to add another processing day so the birds would be ready for Sunday market. Thanksgiving soon became Hell Week.
But I stuck with it because my customers were happy.
Having overcome the hurdle of predation by cats, logistics of processing and getting the birds to market, the next issue to arise was the fact that Standard Bronze turkeys can fly. Broad Breasted birds do not. This meant that at least once, maybe twice during the birds’ lifespan they needed to be caught and have their wing feathers clipped. For the second clipping, a willing partner with the strength and stamina to hold several dozen angry large birds upside down is required and is best performed at night when the birds are easier to catch while roosting. Eventually, this issue would be the proverbial straw that broke my camel’s back.
Coming home from a market in early fall one year I was horrified to see every single one of my turkeys roosting on the top rail of the fence—they were flying again. The only problem: I had just begun my weekly rundown of markets, one each day for the next consecutive four days. It would be nearly a week until I could get their wings clipped.
During this time they became stronger, roosting higher in the trees at night making it impossible to catch them for a wing clipping. At the same time, during the day while I was at market the flock became a marauding band of large birds cruising the neighborhood and bearing down on everyone who dared open their front door. To the birds, humans meant getting fed. In the stampede for a hopeful feeding, the turkeys left unwanted deposits on my neighbors’ driveways, immaculate lawns, front porches and patios. I was having my own personal WKRP turkey nightmare that ultimately cost me several turkeys to appease my irate neighbors.
That was also the same year several other vendors showed up at market with Broad Breasted Whites for half the price of my Standard Bronze leaving me with too many unsold birds to fit in my freezer. I was no longer the only pastured turkey game in town.
At that point, I had raised holiday turkeys for fifteen years and I was done. I don’t even raise one or two for myself. I will buy from a fellow farmer, or cook ham, goose or duck.
But for everyone who buys their bird from a vendor at the farmers market, I want you to know just how hard these folks work to bring you your holiday meal. Raising turkeys for market is no picnic; it’s a labor of love. It’s a big investment in time and resources. And if they’re anything like me, their hearts aren’t broken when they load up their birds on that final day. In truth, the farmers have been chanting “three more weeks” since Halloween. Turkeys are bulky and heavy, much more difficult to handle than most of the other year-round products. And if you wait until the Pike Central Special Thanksgiving Farm Market on November 26th to get your turkey, be prepared to buy a big one because they are always the last ones that are left.