Other people’s turkeys

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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.

That’s Peeper, all big and bad. (Photo by Joe Toscano)

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?

Nothing is safe

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.

Hah!

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.

Pitman Family Farms Step-5 turkey farm

Diestel Family Turkey Ranch Step-5 farm

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.

A Pitman Step-3 facility

Diestel Step-3 birds with their friend, James

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.

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Comments

  1. Oh, my… …I wish I had permission to send you a photo of my tough-guy, marathon biker, brother-in-law, the man who once said “…they will never leave this moveable pen…”

    He is reclining in the newly mowed grass, turkeys gathered around him, just looking for an excuse to make turkey noises. It is pretty cute.

    Love your posts!

  2. So glad you got to meet Elissa Altman. She is lovely and funny and fun. Love her blog: http://www.poormansfeast.com/ Would have bet any amount of money that the two of you would get along like a house on fire (that’s a good thing, right)? Welcome home!

  3. Joseph Toscano says:

    But they are happy, healthy marauding bastards. Love it! I knew a couple of Englishman that would fit that title also. Sorry, but that line just cracked me up.

  4. You know, that Step 5 picture at Pitman reminds me a lot of The Birds. It just has that Alfred Hitchcock vibe.

    I have been getting chickens and turkeys from Pitmans Family Farm for several years now, and they are very good. For one thing, they air chill instead of water chill. It makes a huge difference because the meat is not plumped up with water, plus I get a bit “urpie” thinking of the chicken I am eating tumbling around in what amounts to chlorine treated sewage. Yuck!

    The good thing about the marauders is you will have the last laugh. Every bite will be seasoned with vengance for the damage they have done.

  5. An idea: Do you have space with a tree or trees that aren’t close to other trees that the turkeys could have? You could put metal sheeting around the trunk of the tree(s) to keep raccoons from climbing. As long as the turkey trees aren’t touching other trees the raccoons can’t travel through the tree tops to get to them. If raccoon did find its way in, it couldn’t climb the trees to get to the birds.

  6. Having emailed you when I bought turkeys a few weeks ago, I didn’t realise when you wrote “Don’t let them free-range” that you meant for our safety not theirs. Not one to ignore other people’s good advice, I penned them up as you said. However, their deep-seated need to go marauding meant they flew out and over the pen in minutes of being put there. I clipped their wings, so soon they worked out how to get under the pen netting. Except the white turkey: she hung herself while I was at work yesterday. Now we are two.

    I wasn’t prepared for how personable they are, moreso than chickens. And their chirruping chatter is very peaceful. And curious – inside their pen, no shoe lace or sleeve is safe from investigation. It’s hearteneing to know that Whole Foods is ensuring that these sweet little birds are well provided for, before their turn comes to provide Thanksgiving dinner for us.

  7. Steve — Funny how animals will do that to us. Even the tough guys among us.

    Dianne — And so we did. And it was a good thing! We’ll get her out here to visit all of us.

    Joe — Nothing makes me happier than making people laugh. Thanks.

    Laura — I like the way you think. Unfortunately, we don’t have such a space. But I was thinking about a roost bar on unscaleable poles — a solution along just the lines you propose. We have a good six months to think about it.

    Jen — Sorry about your white bird. But glad you like the others. Their tendency to peck at shoes, buttons, and pockets can be endearing, but it can also, sometimes, feel like an invasion of your personal space. Depends what kind of mood you’re in, I suppose.

    We’ve been reluctant to clip wings, just because we want them to be able to escape, but next year we may go that route. We’ll have to see.

    Keep me posted, please.

  8. Why you, you, you CARNIVORE. You invite, we’ll come. And vice versa please.
    The thing that nobody ever talks about is the size of a turkey’s brain in relation to the rest of its body. Please elaborate…..

    • You know, I’ve never really understood the whole brain-size/body-size ratio. Perhaps it’s time to look into it.

      Invite is standing. But will also get more specific at some point. Meantime, I’ll enjoy your company by reading you.

  9. What a great trip!!! Hope the weather here was good for you. We have purchased turkeys from Diestel and always understood they took great care of their animals. But wow, look at that pasture! The reason we butchered a turkey early this year is because he was so destructive, big (29# before butchering), and a bully to my hens. The plan was to raise him for the friend who built the coop, who instead of freezing him until Thanksgiving said he would rather have a big dinner for everybody that week. I brined him, and citrus salt and sage rubbed him…. best turkey yet. Your information here was what led me to the idea of turkeys in the first place, and he may have made me crazy in the morning when I was cleaning… But I’d do it again. Damn tasty.

    • Brooke — I’m so glad you gave it a go! Citrus salt and sage sounds like a perfect complement.

      Despite all that’s happened, I think we will also do it again because, as you say — damn tasty.

  10. Hi Tamar!

    So happy to read about your trip to the turkey ranches. I met you the evening before your tour of the Diestel Turkey Ranch at Magnolia Cafe in Murphys – before you abandoned our table for greener pastures ;) . I just wanted to say hi and let you know I enjoyed the conversation. I had heard you raise pigs, but did not realize you raise turkeys too! Good luck with the pesky raccoons and come back to see us next time you’re in the general area!

    Take Care,

    Julia Mueller

    • Julia! Nice to find you here. I also enjoyed our conversation — I assure you that your company was most definitely not the reason for those greener pastures — and it couldn’t have happened over a nicer dinner. Can I trespass on your Diestel connection and ask you if you can dig up the name of the winery that made the Petite Syrah we drank that night? It was lovely. And don’t get me started on the turkey …

      • Glad to hear you enjoyed the evening! The wine was 2008 Twisted Oak Petite Sirah :) I believe they also had wine selections from Chatom Vineyards and Hatcher Winery. Have a great evening!

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