Let’s Talk Turkey

turkeyThe time has come again, my friends, to talk some sustainable bird. Thanksgiving is almost here, and I have never in my life questioned where my bird comes from. This year, however, for my Thanksgiving Resolution (that’s a thing, isn’t it?) I’m going to eat a bird that has had a debatably better life than a factory farmed fowl.

I only say debatably because organic and sustainable birds have lives that are still pretty short and unenviable. But factory farming is horrible to witness, so if you would like your actions to be more in line with your convictions, I can see why you’d seek out an organic, heritage or sustainably farmed local bird.

Does it need to be “Organic?”
“Organic may sound like the gold standard, but it’s probably not what’s important,” says Rebecca Landis of Corvallis-Albany Farmers Markets.

The federal laws governing organic labeling were created in 1992, and since then there has been tons of debate and reassessment.  One of the key factors in labeling a bird organic, which makes it hard, is that the bird must be fed a diet of organic grains/grass. This is easier said than done.

But if you want a Turkey you can be proud of, basically there are 3 important things you want to look for:

1) The bird is free range. It has to be allowed to roam and not be cooped up 24/7 in a horrifying skyscraper of feces encrusted cages.

2) The bird is fed a natural diet that excludes antibiotics and includes bugs and grass, not just grain.  Although it should be noted that chickens and turkeys are not like cows.  You may have heard that the grain diet cows eat is nothing less than quite bad for them.  It’s not exactly the same with birds — so you don’t have to hold out for a bird that’s not fed any grains.  You just want some more variety in the diet.

3) The bird should be from around ‘these parts,’ by which it’s meant: sustainable. This can be hard to accomplish, especially on short notice, and it’s certainly less a factor in the taste than the cost and the environmental impact, but eating local is a big part of this whole sustainable living thing, so if you can find a bird that shares your zip code, jump all over it.

What is a heritage Turkey?
According to the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) 99% of turkeys raised in the US are Broadbreasted White turkeys. It’s a variety known for its broad breast (clever name, guys…) which obviously is what we generally want in our Thanksgiving bird (America, fudge yeah!). 

They’re also generally fed a steady diet of grain and antibiotics, which is less desirable.  A turkey’s natural diet, when not born and bred in a terrifying factory farm that resembles something from the mind of Ray Bradbury on acid, would mostly consist of grass, grubs and other bugs. Is it much worse for the taste of your turkey? Probably not, but for the bird and our ecosystem, this is less than optimal. Broadbreasted Whites are so modified they’re “virtually infertile,” according to the NRDC, and would be wiped out in just one generation if not for artificial insemination.

In step the heritage birds, resurrected varieties of turkey that are not bred anymore but were common just a few decades ago, to save the day. These handsome and vintage-y guys may not yield quite as many leftover shares, but they are fed a natural diet of grubs and grass, are allowed to roam free, and some taste tests suggest they even taste better. But if you haven’t already ordered yours, you may be out of luck until next year, because not that many people breed them.

Who is Joel Salatin and why is he deciding what kind of Turkey I should eat?
Good question, and let me start by answering; he’s not. He’s simply pioneered methods of sustainable agriculture that have taken hold and are a framework by which a lot of the farming in America is now done. A lot of people get bent out of shape by the suggestion that you try it this way, but nobody’s forcing you.  So stop rolling your eyes at this article.

Salatin is the Virginia farmer who essentially popularized a lot of the methods we’re discussing here. On his farm you’ll find free range birds, “beyond organic” (his words) livestock and all of them fed primarily by the glorious grass.

He’s not without his detractors though. The main complaint about “sustainable farming” is that it calls for more elbow room for everybody.  It’s hard enough to make a farm a profitable venture without requiring all the birds get enough room to run around.  There are also legitimate concerns about how much space our farms would take up if they all adopted these methods.  I mean, where are we going to put our football stadiums? No seriously, I love football…

If you’re on the fence about shelling out the extra dough and going through the trouble of this when you can just buy a butterball at Safeway, let Rebecca Landis’ words wash over you. 
“The average American has never tasted this turkey. I personally prefer heritage birds, but a broad breasted white, when raised this way, will blow a butterball out of the kitchen.” Boom.

So if you decide to go the sustainable, organic, or heritage turkey route, just remember one thing: start earlier next year.  I don’t want to sound like your mom or anything, but you really shouldn’t have procrastinated.  Here are some of the places you may still be able to order a suitable bird from.

Corvallis Farmer’s Market
There’s still one Saturday and one Wednesday installment of this yet before they shut down for the winter. SO show up and see if there are any birds left to be ordered. No promises.

First Alternative Natural Foods Co-Op
They have Mary’s Free Range Turkeys.  They’re not as local as you may be able to find, but they have heritage, organic and sustainable birds.

Afton Field Farm
Tyler of Afton Field actually interned with Joel Salatin in Virginia, so you have to imagine these guys know what they’re doing. They also have chicken and eggs.

Norton Creek Farm
Their eggs, which are delicious, are available in some local stores including Market of Choice and the First Alternative Food Co-Op.  Their turkeys you’ll have to arrange for at the Farmers Market, or by hitting their website.

My Pharm
You’ll have to go to the farmers market, or check out the farmers market website above to get a My Pharm bird, but they also actually may still have “organic” ones for you, if you’re a stickler…