I spent three days in California this week, talking turkey with a long-haired, tattooed, easy-going Dutch guy named Theo Weening.
Theo is the global meat buyer for Whole Foods Market, and he and his team invited me (and Elissa Altman, of Poor Man’s Feast, who will, from here on in, be at as many of my parties as I can possibly manage) to meet some of the farmers who grow the market’s turkeys.
Part of the reason Whole Foods invited me on this trip – the part that wasn’t my wit, charm, and charisma – was that I raise my own turkeys, and care about how turkeys are raised. So, before I tell you about the turkeys on the west coast, I ought to give you an update on the turkeys in my backyard.
They are about as fine as turkeys can be. This is because Kevin and I made a mistake.
Those of you who come here often will know that, when these birds were small, we lost several to a raccoon. We weren’t quite sure how to best protect the birds, since the pen was too big for us to be reasonably able to make it raccoon-proof. Raccoons had gotten into it in previous years, but had only eaten the feed. The birds, high on their roost bar, had been safe.
Until this year. Somehow, the raccoon was getting to them.
We tried to solve the problem a couple of different ways, without success. And then it seemed that the safest place for them was in the trees. So we let them out of the pen to see whether they could fend for themselves.
And fend they did. From their first night of freedom, they roosted as high as they could get – they’d first fly to the roof of the chicken coop, and pick up branch from there. We haven’t lost a bird since. Free-ranging, they’re safe.
Great. So the turkeys are safe from raccoons. But nothing is safe from the turkeys.
We have six birds, ranging from ten to almost twenty pounds, who think they’re part of the family. They have strong beaks, loud voices, and sharp talons. And, oh yeah, they can fly.
We wake up to them pacing the roof of our house, barking. They hang out around our front door, pooping strategically. They roost on cars, trucks, and boats – no paint job is safe.
They knock down all the chicken wire fencing to let their friends the chickens into the garden. They visit the neighbors to destroy the landscaping. They ripped gaping holes in our hoophouse.
Did I mention that they poop strategically?
They are marauding bastards. But they are happy, healthy marauding bastards. In fact, until this week, I would have said that there isn’t a turkey on the planet that has it this good. When they’ve been particularly destructive, I’ve been known to threaten to send them to a real turkey farm.
Theo – whose concern for animals and knowledge about meat give the lie to his laid-back look – took us to two real turkey farms. First to Pitman Farms (growers of Mary’s Turkeys), in the central valley, and then the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch farther north, in Sonora. Both had turkeys that looked a lot like ours – big, boisterous things with the smug look of birds living the good life.
The people at Whole Foods pay a lot of attention to the farms they buy meat from, and partner with Global Animal Partnership, which has developed a 5-step certification process. A Step-1 farm meets Whole Foods’ minimum standards for animal welfare, and Step-5 is their top rating. Both Pitman and Diestel have some Step-5 installations in their operations.
The turkeys we visited had huge outdoor pens with grass and greenery. There were places to perch, structures for shelter, and room to roam. Add wi-fi and a comfortable chair, and I’d happily move in. If I weren’t raising my own Thanksgiving turkey, I would buy one of these. They are living a life that is just about as good as a turkey’s life can be.
The morning after I came home, I went out early to check on the livestock. The flock of turkeys came running down the driveway to meet me, and I squatted down to say hello. The ringleader, Peeper, immediately spied a loose thread on my coat and pulled off a button.
“Hey!” I told him. “If you don’t stop that, I’ll … I’ll …”
My old threat was no good anymore.
“I’ll eat you for Thanksgiving!”
No turkey will get the last laugh around here.