It's been getting around the playground at my son's school that I bought a $95 turkey for Thanksgiving this year. The consensus has run somewhere between general disbelief and the statement that my turkey sure better be laying some golden eggs to justify the expense. So, let me back up and explain.
Late last spring I heard a local farmer discussing his pasture-raised beef on our local NPR station. The farm, Thundering Hooves, also offers pasture-raised, heritage turkeys, but you'd better get your act together because they sell out as soon as they go on sale in July.
Who wants to think about Thanksgiving in July? Well, I for one, and it certainly appears that plenty of others do as well. So, we dutifully ordered our turkey as soon as we could and have been diligently waiting ever since. The turkeys were processed a few weeks ago and we picked ours up last weekend. We'll be roasting it rather simply since we want to be able to really taste the meat and see how it compares to the standard breeds.
How's it Heritage?
This bird is a rare heirloom Unimproved Standard Bronze. Thundering Hooves keeps their own flock so the eggs are produced and incubated on site (rather than chicks purchased from another grower). According to their website:
"There are extremely limited numbers of breeding flock [of unimproved turkeys] left in the country. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimated that in 1987 there were 'less than 300 breeding hens' found in America with the possible exception of a limited number of turkeys used by hobbyists and show goers."
These birds are becoming endangered simply for the fact that turkey growers are breeding birds that have larger amounts of white meat. I'm sure you've heard of some commercially grown broad-breasted birds that are so busty they can barely walk and are so far removed from nature that they don't know how to mate and must be artificially inseminated in order to breed. A more thorough examination of the issues with commercial turkeys is made in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Out to Pasture
Most commercially grown turkeys are raised in confined and cramped quarters, given little access to the outside (if at all) and are fed a limited and unnatural diet. This makes for a very low-quality life for the turkey and some argue that it results in a less flavorful and nutritious meat.
Pasture raising is a method of raising flocks that is more than just "free range," which generally means that the birds have access to a small outdoor area that they may or may not actually use. On the other hand, our pasture-ranged turkey roamed freely in the fields, eating bugs, grasses and vegetarian feed. The birds on the farm are free to roam about as they please and their roosts are periodically moved throughout the field. This is generally referred to as pasture rotation and it allows the birds access to new areas of grass and bugs for their dining enjoyment.
Eat Local for Thanksgiving
Not only was it important for us to purchase a turkey that is raised sustainably and preserves a heritage breed, but it was important for us to buy local. Each year I host an Eat Local campaign urging individuals and families to choose local foods for their Thanksgiving table. Not only does it help support local farmers, but the reduction in transportation of foods also results in lower carbon emissions, some say as much as 2.2 lbs of CO2 per plate of local foods chosen.
So, if you are interested in joining the movement to Eat Local for Thanksgiving, stop by and sign the pledge!