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Time is running out for Thanksgiving turkeys

Spencer Smith of Tara Firma Farms surveys his flock of 350 turkeys.

Scott Manchester/Argus-Coruier Staff
Published: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 8:14 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 8:14 a.m.

Step aside, chicken, this time of year the turkey takes the spotlight in Petaluma's poultry pulpit.

Petaluma is home to many small producers of this center of the Thanksgiving feast. But rather than produce factory-farmed breast-heavy style birds, they grow friendlier, pasture-raised birds. It comes down to a difference of flavor and farming techniques. Most massed-produce birds at large-scale farms tend to be heavy on white meat, mature far more quickly than heritage birds and are fed a diet of grain-based feed. Compare that to pasture fed birds that roam freely, eat grasses and forage for bugs and grubs, and have a larger percentage of deeply flavorful dark meat. Several local farmers describe turkeys as easy to raise, and say they have much more of a personality than chickens, which has been described as entertaining and companionable.

Tara Firma Farms is the largest of the small producers, and has raised a flock of about 350 birds this year. According to farmer Spencer Smith, the birds are pasture-raised and rotated through different fields to eat fresh grasses and forage for food. They are moved every few days, because otherwise they would dig up the fields and eat all of the available bugs. He supplements their diet with mostly organic fruits and vegetables sourced from a local grocer that would otherwise be composted, as well as adding organic feeds. Tara Firma raises a standard Broad Breasted White turkey, more of a conventional Thanksgiving breed. He noted that rather than breed heritage turkeys, they concentrate on the birds' diet and lifestyle. Smith says they have sold more than 250 of the flock so far, so if you are interested in purchasing a turkey from them, he recommends that you contact them sooner rather than later. He added that some of the birds will be kept for Christmas, so buyers may be able to get one later if they miss the Thanksgiving rush.

Pete Langley, of Langley Farms, has raised pigs for most of his life, but last year decided to try his hand at turkeys. He started with a flock of more than 2,000 heritage turkeys, so called because they are not artificially cross-bred. This year, he decided to scale back to a flock of 50, since the price of feed went up and raising a large flock was no longer economically feasible.

He says he enjoyed raising the turkeys, so might produce more next year, but it all depends on pricing. His heritage birds are pasture-raised in moveable sheds, and sustain on a diet of grain based, antibiotic-free feed.

He noted that commercial turkeys are genetically bred to grow more quickly, ensuring that they mature in half the time it takes heritage breeds. Langley believes that his turkeys, which enjoy a better quality of life, are happier, and said, “Happier animals produce tastier meat.”

Hands Full Farm, in Valley Ford, has been continuously run by the same family since 1897. Anna Erickson, the newest family member to join the business, has added poultry to the farm, and this year decided to raise heritage turkeys.

With advice from her neighbor Liz Cunninghame of Clark Summit Farms (who this year has taken a break from raising turkeys), Erickson started with a flock of 60 Mammoth Bronze birds. She has pasture raised the birds and supplemented their diet with apples from her orchards and whey that she sourced from a local cheesemaker. She butchered the first bird and, “as a matter of quality control,” as she puts it, she then hosted a turkey feast for 15 diners.

Pastured poultry, she says, is well muscled and has lots of dark meat. She described the meat as “exquisite.” She likes to believe that her turkeys “have had their perfect turkey life” by living it out in one place, thus avoiding the stress of being trucked from the farm to processing plants. She appreciates how the locally sourced food movement allows farms like hers to appropriately raise products, and that there is the market to bear the price she needs to charge in order to accomplish that.

Happy Hens Farm is owned and operated by Patricia Sullivan, who arrived at farming after beginning her career in a decidedly different direction.

In her previous life, she was a mental health counselor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and worked at San Francisco General Hospital in mental health programs.

About seven years ago, after boarding livestock at various farms in the Bay Area, she moved from her home in Berkeley and purchased a ranch in Petaluma where she now runs an integrated farmyard of freely roaming turkeys, chickens, cows, sheep and goats.

Her heritage turkeys forage for bugs and grubs, eat green grass and feast on the organic feed that she provides. They are not locked in at night, preferring to roost on fence posts and in trees on the ranch. She raises Bourbon Red and Sweetwater turkeys, which are hatched on the farm and live together on the property.

She says that they “are happy turkeys. They lead a nice life and as a result are good strong healthy birds.” She has a flock of about 30 hens and five toms, and said she will be harvesting soon.

(Contact Lynn King at argus@arguscourier.com)

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