a tale of five turkeys


Ha!  I research and read, but find when I’m up to my elbows in actual projects, the firm expectations I formed from my reading and Facebook are usually inadequate and one dimensional. 

Like it or not, the world we live in is one giant spectrum where both ends are polarized truths separated by a million different variables and shades of gray.  So, I have decided that the only way to know for sure is to try it myself before going off on a bossy-pants meme-slinging Facebook rant.

Will Rogers

What am I talking about? Can’t you tell?  Turkeys. ‘Tis the season and all.   For years, I’ve read about Frankenturkey this, Frankenturkey that. Frankenturkey = America’s favorite industrial turkey, the Broad Breasted White.

At first I was outraged about the horrors. The gross weight, the skeletal issues, the heart failures, the inability to breed.  Then one day, I realized I had never seen a Frankenturkey on pasture, so maybe, just maybe, I didn’t know what I was talking about.

This year, I decided to perform a highly un-scientific experiment. I raised a small flock of free range turkeys. Five Broad Breasted Whites I purchased from my local feedstore, and fifteen Standard Bronze I got from my friends Shelly and Ray Oswald at Old Time Farm. The turkey were all free to walk around as much as they liked, have goofy turkey adventures and forage. They were fed as much high quality feed (conventional, including corn and soy) as they wanted.

As Shelly and Ray from Old Time Farm call them, the Snoopervisors

Now, before I go on, let me disclose that I know absolutely nothing about the hatchery where the white turkeys come from. Commercial hatcheries are never as kind or as caring as a small breeder. The care that Shelly and Ray put into developing the genetics of their turkeys for health and quality just isn’t possible on a giant scale.

So, the turkey were raised together. And there were differences. The heritage turkeys were quicker, more agile and I think a bit more clever. The white turkeys were not nearly as lazy as I expected nor were they necessarily greedier at the feed trough. Another part of my unscientific conclusion about turkeys is that while none of them seemed all that bright, they each had their oddly charming ways and the whites were a little easier to maneuver.

Anyway, the result is I am no longer so sure about the horrors of Frankenturkeys. The whites were fine. They lumbered a little in comparison, couldn’t fly as well, and there was a bit more huffing and puffing towards the end.  But, overall,  it was nothing alarming or painful to see.

Don’t tell, but meet my favorite, Priscilla.

So, I’m concluding that the raising of the turkey is the part that makes the biggest difference on the table. But the eating part is just a single concern about factory farmed animals. There’s a bigger picture to consider. 

The confinement and gorging of the factory turkeys is the part I most seriously object to. But, as a producer, I also have to scratch my head about the feasibility of pastured turkeys in general. This year, a commercially raised 22 pound “fresh” turkey at my local butcher shop is selling for $2.59/lb.

By allowing my birds to grow more slowly, my cost of raising even a Broad Breasted White turkey is more than the retail price of the commercial birds.  What to do??

As we neared harvest time for the Standard Bronze turkeys, I had kept the white turkeys about 27 weeks – more than twice as long as the industrial turkeys. And, admittedly longer than necessary.  The whites ranged in the high 25 – 30 pound range;  I would have had high quality whites in the 12 – 18# range easily a month or more sooner.

It is also clear to me that the white turkeys were beginning to decline slightly in quality of life and that decline would grow as they aged. I recognize that as an argument for or against, it’s a moot point since the birds are never going to live long enough to really suffer.

The truth is though, that if turned into the wild, the heritage breed Standard Bronze turkeys would survive whereas the white birds would never be able to reproduce on their own, let alone escape a predator and would very obviously die out quickly.

In addition, I am always uncomfortable with the safety of raising so many, many birds from such an extremely limited gene pool, and this year’s Avian Flu event made that a more widely noticed, yet commonly distorted and misunderstood topic.

My conundrum as a producer is always that I do not want to raise precious, pretentious food. I want everyone to experience the difference between factory and lovingly raised food.

If there is no difference in the deliciousness of the meat, the single point of improved animal welfare and soil health becomes much more difficult to sell to an uninformed and disinterested group of consumers. Fortunately, the proof is on the platter.

Because I am truly crazy, I roasted five Thanksgiving turkeys.  

Mature, Standard Bronze turkey fresh from the oven. Wish you had Smell-O-Vision!

From best to worst:

The winners: Truly, it was neck and neck between the pastured Standard Bronze and the pastured Broad Breasted White harvested at 22 – 27 weeks. Both were juicy and tender in texture. The BBWs were more tender in the wings and had more white meat. The flavor was also milder in the BBW.  The richness of the heritage turkey was remarkable and my personal favorite. And the stock made from the heritage breed bird was truly amazing.

Second Runners up:  I harvested and roasted one of my own pastured BBWs and a Standard Bronze at 16-18 weeks. This time, the difference between the heritage and the factory bird was more pronounced. My  heritage breed bird was richly delicious, but harvesting at a younger age made a noticeable difference. The breast meat was tender and juicy but the wings and legs were giant in proportion and a bit stringy and rubbery. The BBW was consistently tender, flavorful enough and juicy throughout.

The definitive loser:  a frozen turkey purchased from a local grocery store. This wasn’t even a loss-leader turkey, but one from a premium grocer. Had I never tasted the others, I really wouldn’t have thought much of it. But now I know,  it was seriously inferior. The texture was much more open and coarse the breast meat much drier. The flavor was bland, despite the addition of a flavored broth enhancement by the processor.

Juicy and finely textured turkey. Which is better, the slices on your plate Thanksgiving Day, or the slices on your sandwich day after?

All this time, I thought dry-ish and bland was just the nature of turkey. Boy am I glad I peed on THAT fence.  Where are you getting your turkey this year?