Let's Talk Turkey!

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****Scroll toward the bottom if you’d like to skip my editorializing and just get to the information about where to get a fresh turkey! *****

The holidays are nearly upon us! Soon we will be gathering together with friends and family and the food on our tables will take center stage. What better time is there to make sure that food is as healthy, delicious and responsibly sourced as possible?

Today, we’re going to talk about the star of many holiday dinners, the turkey!

We are all familiar with the supermarket turkey. You know, the one that comes frozen and needs to be thawed in the bathtub because it’s too big for the sink and you didn’t buy it early enough to let it thaw in the fridge? Yeah, that turkey. The one with the giblets in the bag tucked into the body cavity and the plastic timer thingy that pops up to tell us when it’s ready. It’s the one we can get on sale for 99 cents per pound or comes “free” when we buy furniture this time of year or purchase enough groceries to earn one.

It’s also the one that comes injected with a “solution”. It’s the turkey that was fed with government subsidized and genetically modified corn and grains. It’s the turkey that lived its entire life indoors with little space to move and no fresh air to breathe. It’s the turkey that was fed antibiotics whether it ever needed them to stay well or not. It’s the turkey that, in Joel Salatin’s terminology, was never allowed to express the turkey-ness of the turkey.

I’m not going to go into gory detail here about the atrocities that are associated with what we have come to know as “conventional” agriculture here in this blog. It’s very easy to do just a little research on your own to discover how far from ideal our way of producing poultry and other meat products has become in this country. I hope that you will take your responsibility as a consumer seriously and dig a little bit into this subject on your own.

I’m also not here to criticize or judge anyone who purchases a turkey from a supermarket. We all have our choices and priorities to make. And I understand from a personal perspective that grocery budgets are not unlimited. I’m not a travel agent and this is not a guilt trip.

What I want to do today is offer an alternative to that bird that we have all come to know from the supermarket deep freezer. I want to introduce you to the pasture-raised turkey! This turkey has experienced the great outdoors, breathed fresh air, foraged for a variety of greens and insects. It has been cared for and respected by a farmer, and most likely his or her family members as well.

 Andy Williams of Ox and Broadfork, premium craft meat.

Andy Williams of Ox and Broadfork, premium craft meat.

It has been allowed to fully express the turkey-ness of the turkey. Depending on the methods used on the farm where it was raised, it may or may not have been completely free to wander (free range), but it has had plenty of room to move about and to engage in its natural behaviors.

I recently visited the Ox and Broadfork operation and met with the owner/farmer Andy Williams to discuss some of the distinctions of a pasture-raised turkey and to hopefully answer some questions many consumers might have.

(Full disclosure, this is the farm geographically closest to me that I know of that is raising turkeys and this is where my Thanksgiving gobbler will come from. Prior to about a week ago, I had not heard of this farm and just met Andy yesterday.)

 Baby Williams, future farmer in the making. Who can resist photo ops of cute kids with animals???

Baby Williams, future farmer in the making. Who can resist photo ops of cute kids with animals???

Andy has been raising and selling turkeys on a fairly small scale for about seven years. He was nice enough to let me come hang out with him and his four kids while they tended to the turkeys and we talked about some of the lessons he has learned along the way and about his choices and other options that are out there when it comes to raising turkeys in a way that respects the bird, the land and the health of the consumer.

While I did not visit all the farms I list below, I am confident that they are similarly responsible with their methods. But I can also say with confidence that if you reach out to any one of them and want to visit their farm and see for yourself that they would be happy to accommodate you and answer any questions you may have. In my experience, most farmers are passionate about what they do and eager to share information with consumers who are genuinely interested in where their food comes from.

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So, let’s get to it.

Life for turkeys being raised in pastures is all about balance. A balanced diet of fresh greens, grain feed and those nice big juicy worms and bugs they find as an extra treat! It’s also about balance between freedom to roam and move about unfettered and security from the many predators that enjoy eating turkey as much as we do.

It’s also about balance when it comes to the breed. There are advantages and disadvantages to raising heritage breed turkeys as well as the more modern breeds that have been developed for commercial production.

Most heritage breeds, for instance, take a long time to grow and mature to a point where they can be harvested. This means that the farmer invests a lot more resources - time, feed, energy - into raising those birds. Some chefs and connoisseurs prefer the taste of these breeds, but for the average consumer it could require a greater level of skill to prepare properly. If purchasing a heritage breed turkey that has been pasture-raised, be prepared to pay a premium, all those extra resources the farmer must invest in these animals necessarily increases the final cost of the product.

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Breeds developed for commercial use (please note, these are not genetically modified birds… they have simply been bred for traits that are useful for large scale production), grow more quickly and will have a meat composition in line with what the average consumer is used to seeing.

They will differ, however, in several ways from the supermarket turkey even though they are possibly the same breed. The difference being an improved balance of flavor (due to a much more varied diet), they will be free of antibiotics (a common ingredient in factory farmed turkeys), they will not be injected with any solutions. From an animal welfare perspective, the difference is beyond what I have time/space to get into in this article - it’s quite literally night and day.

After years of experimentation with different breeds and various set-ups, Andy chooses Broad Breasted White turkeys. This breed is the industry standard and is what the average consumer has come to expect from a turkey.

Rather than allowing them to be completely free-range, Andy chooses to use a hoop-house tractor method that allows the turkeys plenty of room to move about and engage in their natural behaviors while also protecting them from predators. The tractors have to be moved regularly to keep the turkeys on fresh pasture for foraging.

Before we go any further, let’s address. Price. If you’ve never priced a pasture-raised turkey or usually buy all of your meat at the local supermarket, brace yourself. You’re going to experience some sticker shock. Expect a PRT (sorry, I just can’t keep typing Pasture Raised Turkey all day) to start at about $4.00 per pound and go up from there.

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Yes, you’ve done the math right. That’s about four times what you’ll spend on that frozen turkey. PRTs will weigh anywhere from 10 pounds up to around 25 pounds and will cost from about $4.00 to $7.00 per pound. You can expect to spend upwards of $80 on a locally sourced PRT.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “why is a PRT so expensive?”. That’s a good question. An even better question to ask yourself is, “why is that frozen turkey at the supermarket so cheap?”

In almost every other area of spending, Americans understand that you get what you pay for, a quality product is worth the price because it’s better made. When it comes to groceries, however, we often demand to pay as little as possible with little thought about the implications.

How many times have you chosen to spend more money on a vehicle, electronics or clothing because you recognize that saving a few bucks on the purchase isn’t worth it because of the inferiority of the product? This is the kind of reasoning we need to begin applying to the food we eat. It’s not really about why a better quality product is more expensive, right? We understand that cheap products get that way because corners are cut, inferior materials are used, cheap labor forces are exploited.

Those same principles apply to the food we eat. Think of it this way: that frozen turkey was mass-produced using the cheapest materials available without regard for quality, the company that produced it employed the cheapest labor force they could get by with and they used an economy-of-scale approach to turkey production (how many turkeys can we produce in the smallest space possible, using the fewest resources to achieve the greatest gain). These turkeys are fattened up as quickly as possible for the fastest Return on Investment through the use of government subsidized (i.e. taxpayer funded) corn and the rampant use of antibiotics (which has the convenient side-effect of causing poultry to grow bigger, faster).

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Compare that to the farmer who lives just down the street from you and is raising turkeys on pasture. Instead of approaching his/her farm as if it’s a factory, he/she treats it like a …. farm. Economies of scale don’t apply in the same way here, because, well, it’s a farm and not a factory and farms are all about living things.

So, things like fresh air, quality feed for the animals, respect for the animal (honoring the turkey-ness of the turkey), ecological impact (how many turkeys are too many turkeys for this amount of land to stay healthy), predator control (because these turkeys exist in the real world, not a huge building), and qualified labor (usually the farmer him or herself or someone with a certain amount of skills) all need to be factored in to the final cost of the product.

It’s a shift in thinking that we as consumers (and I very much include myself in this admonition) need to make. We need to stop rewarding the companies that produce “cheap” food that are costing us in terms of healthcare, environmental degradation and a truly unethical exploitation of an underpaid labor force and, of course, the animals themselves. Instead, let’s use those food dollars to support the hardworking individuals who dedicate themselves to producing great food that we can feel good about eating!

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The bottom line this holiday season and throughout the year is this: as consumers, we have the power to shape the world we live in. Each food dollar we spend casts a vote in support of the type of systems we want to see flourish. I can’t think of a better time than Thanksgiving when we are pausing to reflect on our many blessings and the abundance of the earth to support our local food systems and the farmers and families that are providing healthy and ecologically sound choices.

I realize at this point that I’m writing a book and not a blog post, so let’s get to some other key points about PRTs.

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• To have a tender turkey with lots of good flavor, Andy recommends brining a PRT. This is especially important if you are purchasing a heritage breed which may have more muscle and tendons than they type of turkey with which most of us are familiar. (You can Google brining methods and formulas which give the breakdown of salt/water ratio per pound of turkey, as well as, brining times). The brining process will not only help infuse flavor and moisture into your bird, but it will begin a tenderizing process as well.

• If roasting a PRT, low and slow is best. Insert a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the breast without touching bone to check for doneness - the turkey is fully cooked at 165º. When it reaches the right temperature, remove from the oven and allow to rest. Don’t overcook your bird!

• Your PRT will come dressed. No, that does not mean it will be wearing cute clothes. :) It will, however, have its feathers removed, be gutted and cleaned and bagged. (At Ox and Broadfork, the giblets will be bagged and in the cavity of the turkey. It’s probably a similar situation with the other two farms as well.) It will not come with a pop out timer … that’s what the meat thermometer is for.

I hope this information helps explain some of the reasons why a Pasture Raised Turkey is worth the extra expense this holiday season. Wishing you all a very joyous Thanksgiving surrounded by friends, family and loved ones. As we celebrate the season, may we be reminded of all the ways we are truly blessed and may we be a blessing to those around us! Happy Thanksgiving!

Local Pasture Raised Turkeys Available At These Locations - go out and get you some!

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Ox and Broadfork, Andy Williams. $4.50 per pound (dressed). Near Stillmore. oxandbroadfork.com

Info Provided by Farmer. “We care about what we do and how we do it. We care about our animals and give them the best life we know how. We don’t, however, let them sleep in our bed. Our poultry spend every day of their lives eating bugs, grass, and fresh, locally milled non-GMO feed. A well-rounded diet for your turkey means a nutrient dense bird for you. Happy bird + healthy diet = tasty!

Sandy Creek Farms, Suzanne Bailey.  $6.99 per pound from the field. Near Brooklet / Statesboro. swbailey@bulloch.net

Info Provided by Farmer. “They will be processed next week and will be ready to sale week of November 12th. These were hatched a raised here on the farm, antibiotic free. They are cooped now getting ready for collection. These are big healthy birds that have been fed pretty much an organic diet. Remember, these are farm raised, they will not be injected with a saline solution like store bought turkeys are, so a ten pound bird will yield meat like a twelve pound from the store. They will be processed at a USDA certified facility. Bagged and weighted by the processor. Price is $6.99 from the farm. There will be birds offered at the farmers markets by other vendor friends of mine. I will list them once I have them in stock.”

Granddaddy’s Farm, Ernie Baldree. $4.00 per pound (dressed) Near Irwinville. 229-326-9301

Info Provided by Farmer. "Our turkeys are out on pasture from 12-days old (in a Salatin-style chicken tractor for their protection and moved to new grass daily). At about six weeks we take them out and move them into an open air pen (roughly 2250 sq. ft) that I move weekly. We charge $4 per pound dressed and bagged. Our weights this year have ranged from 18-31 lbs dressed. I only have 10 or so left (with 2 left to process) so its definitely 1st come 1st serve.)