Turkey: Farm To Table

Joel Salatin with TurkeySeventy years ago, turkey breeders changed the way they raised birds. The trend began with breeding turkeys to have large breasts and small legs. These birds could grow to full size on less feed and in half the time as the old-breed turkeys – this leads to turkeys being raised cheaper, faster, and (I think you may know) the flavor went out with breeding. If we allow for the natural flow of life, turkeys hatch in the Spring and reach a perfect weight for harvesting right around November (just like pigs!), but with artificial insemination and moving turkeys into large indoor facilities, turkeys became available year round. The old breeds (heritage) were almost lost to extinction.

The Heritage Turkey has a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems. Backyard farmers and a few major turkey growers have had a renaissance this past decade, committing to the extra time, expense and effort in raising these birds that fly, roam freely and breed (imagine?). The Heritage Turkey must have a slow growth rate, reaching a marketable weight in about 28 weeks which allows time to develop a strong skeletal structure, healthy organs, fat (YES!) and muscle mass. Older birds also have much thicker skin that helps keep the meat moist during roasting.

I have talked to farmers across the Vineyard, to Joel Salatin (pictured above), and to Mary’s Turkeys to find out about how they raise birds and what they feed them. Jon Previn at the Farm Institute goes into great detail describing the cost of raising these prized birds in this blog post. All the turkeys that I know of on Martha’s Vineyard are pastured, meaning they are free to range outdoors and forage to supplement their feed. Most are surrounded by a light electric fence and they get rotated around. I have a friend in West Tisbury who allows his turkeys complete free range without a fence. He lost them last week, was in a panic, and much to his relief, they came home for dinner! Only a few of the growers feed their poultry GMO-free or organic grain because of the price.

These heritage turkeys look a bit different on the platter than your average butterball. With long legs and wings, a pointy breast, a darker color skin and overall, a darker color of meat (a sign of well-exercised birds). There is also a layer of fat under the skin that is not so common with the commercial varieties. The taste is more rich and flavorful. I brine all of my turkeys before roasting (Roast Turkey with Gravy).

There’s no denying that price is a big factor when considering heritage turkeys. Supermarket turkeys average $2.50 per pound. Heritage turkeys can cost upwards of $10 per pound, plus, required overnight or two-day shipping can nearly double the price. Some farms charge a flat price for a range of weights, such as a 10-12 pound turkey for $100. Also, a small turkey for some farmers may be 16 lbs. The farmers I interviewed are not getting rich on turkeys. It is a labor of love or a service to provide to their loyal customers. These rare, slow-growing, odd-size birds are far more expensive to raise and process. When a heritage bird is the center of the table on Thanksgiving, it is an investment. Like other prime cuts, such as grass-fed prime rib or pastured Berkshire pork tenderloin, we really can afford to eat these at our special gatherings.

Where can you find these birds? Ask around. I encourage you to contact a local grower, ask your butcher or talk to a farmer who might just grow one for you or who happens to know someone who is raising heritage turkeys for the holiday. You not only save them from extinction, but you bring back real taste, contribute to our cultural farming community and contribute to your health by eating a bird that is eating good food and living a good life!

Turkeys:

Pitman Farms has a few New England outlets, as does D’artagnan

The Farm Institute has heritage birds that are pastured and you can reserve one at 508-627-7007

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