Wednesday November 17, 2010
Heritage Turkeys at Elmwood Stock Farm
Four years ago, Mr. Bravetart and I joined our first CSA program with Elmwood Stock Farm. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know Ann and Mac Stone, who together man the Elmwood booth at the Farmers’ Market and generally serve as Elmwood’s ambassadors to the public.
We went out to their farm every other week during that first autumn to pick up our fall CSA share. We’ve called them up and stopped by at odd hours to get our hands on short ribs, just back from their butcher. We’ve chatted them silly about what they’re growing and what they’re planning to grow. We’ve anxiously watched the skies for dark clouds, realizing the drought that to most means simply watering the lawn every other day, to them means watching a field they’ve invested in all year wither up and die, leaving them with nothing.
When you know the people who raise the chickens you roast on Sunday afternoons, gather the eggs you use to make ice cream, who go to great lengths to carefully cultivate organic raspberries well into the fall, who store up root vegetables and winter squash to dole out long past Thanksgiving, it sort of changes your perspective at the grocery.
You start to notice the mouth-numbing blandness of grocery store celery; the pale, anemic color of mass produced eggs; the preternatural size of Driscoll strawberries. You cut open the pack of giblets in a factory farmed chicken and wonder, “Hey, just how many livers did this guy have?!”
So four years ago, when we got our first e-mail from Elmwood about ordering an organic heritage turkey, we didn’t hesitate to sign on the dotted line. We didn’t wonder if we’d notice the difference between heritage and Butterball; we just wondered how extreme the difference would be.
Short answer: every November since, we’ve purchased two. One for us to gluttonously devour at home, each of us gripping a turkey leg and savaging the poor beast like half starved Klingons at a banquet table in StoVorKor.
The other I reluctantly turn over to my mother-in-law a few days before Thanksgiving. I watch her walk away with pangs of regret. I hold back the tears, wanting it to stay in my home forever. I know it’s for the best, I know she’ll take such good care of it, but it’s hard to let go. Sniff.
Now for the long answer:
A hundred years ago, American palettes only knew the taste of these birds. They didn’t call them “heritage” they called them turkeys.
Yet now they have nearly reached the point of extinction, their numbers perhaps fewer than 25,000. Compared to the 200,000,000 turkeys the industrialized process spits out every year, the smallness of that number becomes apparent. In fact, the American Poultry Association classifies most of the heritage breeds as critically endangered.
So what happened to them?
Casualties of the industrialization of agriculture and the monoculture that’s arisen from the market dominance of the Broad Breasted White. This particular breed became number one due to its hyper fast development and its generous, um, endowment of America’s favorite piece of meat: the breast.
The fact that it costs somewhere between free and dirt cheap to raise doesn’t hurt either. Its breasts grow so huge, so fast, Hollywood plastic surgeons can only dream of duplicating such results. The eponymous breasts of these mutant turkeys grow so broad, in fact, they cannot physically consummate their birdy-unions. Tom Turkey is held at bay, unable to make sweet birdy love because he can’t reach his would-be mate, gargantuan breasts literally constituting a barrier. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.
Nevertheless, Broad Breasted Whites account for 99% of the turkeys consumed in America. They grow fast, ready for slaughter at nearly half the age of a heritage bird. Good thing too, because if not for heading off to slaughter, these birds would soon die anyway due to complications of their psychotically rapid growth.
The one the President pardons every year? Don’t imagine it lives out a full life in some beautiful pasture somewhere. It’ll probably be dead before summer. Its internal organs and skeletal structure can’t keep pace with the engineered swiftness of its breast development. Its legs won’t have the strength to support its own weight by January and will begin to swell. The poor turkey will spend most of its time toppled, struggling to stand. It’ll have congestive heart failure; its kidneys will give out. Barry should just go ahead and put it out of its misery instead of pardoning it to a life of misery.
Others have gone on to write more about the surreal weirdness behind the industrial turkey. Check out this article from the Huffington Post if you’d like to know more. If you’d like to see how the birds and conditions at a turkey factory compare to the photos you’ve seen here, follow that link.
In a very real sense, heritage breeds have been taken away from us as a culture. An industrial bait and switch on a national scale. The more corporately convenient, cost effective, factory friendly Franken-turkeys have won the day. But not for reasons of taste.
Most people don’t classify themselves as “big turkey fans,” buying a turkey each week to roast for Sunday supper, making turkey pot pie, or Turkey ala King. To me, the reason seems obvious: industrial turkey doesn’t have much flavor. Like chicken, only more blandtastic, even when pumped full of saline solution and flavoring at the factory.
Heritage birds boast a rich, satisfying flavor. The dark meat has an almost duck-like quality. If you’ve ever tasted a wild turkey, you’ll have a good idea what to expect. Truly, heritage birds have more in common with wild turkeys than they do with industrial ones.
The Narragansett in particular is only one step removed, dating to the 17th century when the Eastern wild turkey started to intermingle with the turkeys brought to America by the Puritans.
No matter what breed, heritage turkeys are kept alive through the dedicated efforts of a handful of small farms across America. These farmers raise heritage turkeys at a great expense; they take about ten weeks longer to reach market weight and maturity than their industrial counterparts. Ten extra weeks of feed and care. Or in layman’s terms: ten extra weeks of financial drain on the farmer.
Additionally, heritage birds require not just more feed over time, but more feed in general as they haven’t been engineered for rapid growth and weight gain.
The cost of processing (the polite term for slaughtering, plucking, and packaging) a heritage turkey is also particularly steep. Many facilities, equipped to handle the uniform size and shape of the Broad Breasted White, can’t process the long, sleek bodies and irregular sizes found in heritage birds. Farmers often have to travel great distances to find a facility that can handle their turkeys. A job made all the more difficult if the farmer must find a USDA certified organic facility.
By the time the farmers have birds ready for market, they have to sell the turkeys between $10-$12 a pound. Some may balk at the cost, but when did you last see a farmer cruising around in an Audi, dripping diamonds and hitting up the swanky parties? Of course not everyone can or would even want to pay that price for a turkey. But it’s a justified cost, not an exploitative one. And it’s still less per pound than a Porterhouse.
So why do these farmers go to such great lengths to raise these labor intensive, expensive animals if not for fun and profit?
Because of a passionate niche market: the foodies. The people who want to literally taste a piece of history. People who have concerns over any one species of animal being reduced down to a single breed. People who love food. People who’d rather save up and splurge for a holiday that is, if nothing else, about heritage.
Ann Stone’s family has farmed in central Kentucky for over six generations. In addition to the fruits and vegetables they cultivate, they have chickens, sheep, cattle, and heritage turkeys. Organic heritage turkeys.
At the Farmers’ Market, I told Ann about BraveTart and asked if we could come out to the farm and get some pictures of the turkeys. She didn’t hesitate to have us out, she just smiled and said, “Just call me when you get there.”
So Rosco and I went over late one afternoon, rambling slowly up the long gravel drive toward the big black barn at the top of the hill. When we saw the “Turkey Xing” sign, we knew we had come far enough. I pulled out my cell and called Ann, hoping that with all she has on her plate she still had time for us.
In a few minutes, she came out to greet us and led me and Rosco on foot through a field toward the flock (“rafter”) of multi-colored turkeys. I imagined they’d scatter at our approach. Instead, they rushed us, curious and atwitter with adorable coo-ing turkey sounds. I couldn’t believe how adorable they were. No one ever tells you that about turkeys.
Like cats, they had the uncanny ability to stand so close and yet so perpetually out of reach. We never touched one, but they swarmed around us, between us, behind us. The whole time they chirped amicably and, hilariously, when Ann’s phone rang, every one of them reared up and gobble gobble gobbled their hellos.
The birds Rosco photographed represent a who’s-who of endangered Heritage turkeys: Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Palm, and Slate.
They look nothing like the birds in the endless loops of Good Morning America type Thanksgiving coverage: totally identical with shock white feathers, clipped wings and fat, globe-like bodies with stumpy little legs.
The ones from Elmwood have beautifully colored coats, long legs, and sleek bodies. They stand quite tall, their heads at about elbow level. They’re curious, intelligent animals. They’ve never had their wings clipped. They’re free to fly away.
But they don’t. Life on the farm is good. Plenty of space to spread their wings, acres of green grass for grazing, bugs for hunting, and organic grain to round out their diet. They’re a happy, contented bunch. (Insert twinge of guilt here…)
And they are incredibly, indescribably, unforgettably delicious.
(Visit Ann and Mac at the Lexington Farmers’ Market or online at Elmwood Stock Farm if you’d like to get a heritage turkey this year. They still have some birds as yet unclaimed for the holidays, so give them a call and reserve one while you can.)
7 comments and counting
Nov 17, 2010 · 9:25 PM
What a fine gift to all of us, Stella, this explanation of the challenges and promise of raising heritage turkeys. Rosco, honestly, I’ve never, ever seen such photos of these peculiar animals, lit with winter twilight, no less, in the (twinge of guilt, Stella) twilight of their lives. I’d like to see a whole photo book of turkeys now, having seen these.
· Rona Roberts · http://www.savoringkentucky.com
Nov 17, 2010 · 10:58 PM
…I’d eat ‘em.
· Rosco · http://www.sideshowphoto.com
Nov 18, 2010 · 10:01 AM
Rona, thanks so much for your kind words! R and I had so much fun at the farm, the turkeys were just amazing little creatures. We took chicken pictures too, but I am saving them for an egg themed post!
Nov 20, 2010 · 4:34 PM
This is a beautiful piece! I work for Elmwood (and cousin to Ann) and am so impressed with your spirited article. Thanks for taking the time to compile such a honest overview of the poultry industry and featuring Elmwood. I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving!
-Katie, ‘Elmwood’s veteran veggie vendor’
Nov 20, 2010 · 9:27 PM
Katie, thanks so much for stopping by BraveTart. It was entirely our pleasure to visit with the Turkeys and try to show people a side of food they never see. We’re going to do a follow up post on the lovely chickens and eggs from Elmwood too! I picked up my Turkey from Ann today! Hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful too.
Jan 03, 2011 · 11:50 PM
Wow. First I find Rona, then I find you. We landed (back) in KY kinda by accident, but what a lucky lucky thing. I fell into the right place! Thank you, can’t wait to read more. And have me one o them thar turkeys!
· Sally · http://www.fiftytolife.com
Jan 31, 2011 · 6:37 PM
Finally! Someone else who really enjoys (live) turkeys! I think your comparison to cats is spot on. I love the way our tom enjoys peering into open car doors making is I-am-curious “twirp” noise as he looks around.
I help my farmer friend around the corner process his birds. The broad breasted birds certainly do grow faster (we had some 30lb’ers this year) and they are easier to pluck (bred for that too) but their fat isn’t nearly as dark yellow (even when raised on grass) and, for me, there is nothing that says healthy flavor like really yellow fat.