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How to Pick Your Thanksgiving Day Bird

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and although you have probably been buying Turkeys for years, are you sure you are buying the right one for you? There is a reason for the phrase “talk turkey”. We’re going to talk turkey here, so read on!

Is a Turkey Just a Turkey?

No. There are many kinds of turkeys. For example, the turkeys found in every supermarket are hybrids. They are bred to have a white pigment so you won’t see the little black spots in the skin after they are plucked. (It seems that American food buyers don’t want to be reminded that the turkey once had feathers!) These white birds are given feed that allows them to grow and gain weight faster. That way the turkey growers can get the fat basters to market faster.  The special feed also means that each turkey has actually eaten less feed than a heritage bird and that may impact the flavor of the meat.

When you purchase a turkey in the supermarket, you may be eating last year’s turkey.The availability of cold storage for supermarkets means that they can store frozen birds for quite a while. As a result, you have no way of knowing when the turkey you are buying was actually processed.

Also Read – Red Wine Magazine – November 2014 Issue

If Not a Supermarket Turkey, Then What?

That’s a good question. There are many places that now sell naturally bred, cage –free turkeys; heritage turkeys. All domesticated turkeys came from the wild turkey that is native to North America. Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised and must meet strict criteria to qualify as a heritage bird.

Before you find a breeder that is selling heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, you need to know what breed you want to buy.

Irecommendone of the range-raised heirloom breeds listed by the American Poultry Association:

  • Bourbon Reds
  • Black Bronzes
  • Narragansetts
  • White Holland
  • Slate
  • Royal Palm

You can find more information on heritage breeds on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website, conservancy.org.

Why Should You Buy a Heritage Breed?

  1. Heritage breed turkeys have a slower growth rate and more natural leg-to-breast proportions.
  2. That means that the bird has significantly fewer health problems than commercial varieties and as a result, better taste.
  3. Heritage birds hold more fat under the skin, which acts as an automatic basting unit while the turkey is in the roasting pan. The result? Better taste.

Ok, Where do I Buy a Heritage Turkey?

A Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) farm is the best place to look. CSAs are the small farmers of today. In the past, farmers planted their crops or raised animals and then took them to market and hoped they would sell them. The CSA model has improved on that as the CSA farmer sells a portion of his crop or meat in advance. (Consumers buy into a CSA, pay a monthly fee and the farmer provides them a share of the seasonal crop each week.) Many of them raise turkeys.

Visit your local farmers’ market and ask about CSAs in your area. You can also search the internet for “CSA” in your area. If you decide to purchase your turkey at a CSA you will be supporting your local farm and putting high quality, fresh taste on the Thanksgiving Day table.

More Information on CSAs

There are CSAs for every type of natural food, from range-raised beef, poultry and pork to vegetables and grains.

You can find a lot of information on CSAs on this website:  http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

On a Personal Note

I have a son who is considering raising some turkeys in the future in a CSA. Our family ranch is located in central Texas about 50 miles north of San Antonio. If you are interested in buying a heritage breed, range-raised bird for next year’s holiday season, please contact us at hyetexas@gmail.com

Why I Know So Much About Turkeys

I was raised on a turkey farm and there were plenty of them. For 20 years our commercial contracts paid us to raise an average of 120,000 birds per year. (That required 5 million pounds of feed each year!)

In 1999, the company that my family contracted with suffered a fire at its processing facility and moved out of state. That put our turkey farm out of business. So I turned my turkey shed into a wood shop and started building log furniture. (Cedar sawdust smells better than turkey manure anyway!)