by andrea pyenson
Turkey gets a bum rap. Idealized in Normal Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom from Want,” sprayed with coloring solution or painted to perfection for the covers and glossy pages of the country’s food magazines, the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving tables is often ridiculed behind its back.
Many holiday diners dismiss it as dry, tasteless or boring. They tolerate it as a necessary evil to round out what they consider to be the yummier accompaniments—stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied squash and pies. But turkey can be as tasty as anything on your holiday menu. Especially if it’s a fresh bird bred locally.
In the Greater Boston area, we are fortunate to have a number of farms that breed and/or raise the iconic food (disputes regarding the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving menu notwithstanding) of our region’s signature holiday. The difference between life, and sometimes death, on a small, family-run farm and large, commercial operations translates to a world of difference between these birds and their generic counterparts on the plate.
Jim Rischer, who owns Raymond’s Turkey Farm in Methuen, says he can tell a small-farm-raised turkey from a commercial one “just by looking at them.” Rischer’s parents started the farm in his grandfather’s garage in 1950. Today he and his wife, Patt, run it with their three grown children. They raise just under 20,000 broad-breasted White Holland turkeys—a breed that the family developed—annually, on a diet of all-natural feed that is mixed in Taunton. Raymond’s slaughters its turkeys as well.
“In New England, on farms like ours, we feed [turkeys] better than commercial farms,” he says. “We don’t crowd them. We raise them slower than commercial growers.” Raymond’s turkeys live in an open, covered area, so the feed doesn’t get wet, but the birds have plenty of fresh air. Occasionally, some wander into the surrounding fields. “They love it,” Rischer maintains.
While commercial turkeys can grow to full size in about 10 weeks, naturally farmed birds like Raymond’s take four to five months. The farm begins hatching Thanksgiving turkeys in late June, and ends about four weeks later. Because their growth is not rushed, Rischer explains, “Birds are more tender. It gets cooler in the fall and they eat a little more, so they get a little fat under the skin. If you had a fresh turkey from here, you’d never go back to a supermarket one.”
All that luxe living comes at a price. According to Rischer, it costs small farmers like his family about twice as much to raise turkeys as it costs commercial farmers. And their costs are rising. These will have to be shared, to some degree, by consumers. “We hate to [raise prices], Rischer says, “but to get a fresh, all-natural bird at Thanksgiving will cost more than $3 a pound.” Still, Raymond’s draws customers from all over the Boston area, Cape Cod, Vermont, Connecticut and even New York. Some grew up in the area and moved away, but wouldn’t get their holiday centerpiece anywhere else.
At Elm Turkey Farm, in Dracut, Charles Daigle raises 1,200 to 1,500 Broad Breasted White birds from chicks, or poults, that he gets from a farm in Michigan. He slaughters and packages them on-site, the week before Thanksgiving, hiring around 15 seasonal helpers. “The key to a good turkey—a good anything, for that matter—is freshness,” says the recently retired engineer and Vietnam veteran, who started the farm 30 years ago.
Until this past year, turkey farming was only an avocation for Daigle, albeit a very time-consuming one. When he returned from Vietnam, he bought what he calls “a little piece of land and started to grow turkeys,” because he enjoys agriculture. Over time, he built a processing, or slaughtering, facility. “You have to be more of an engineer than a farmer in this business,” he says. “When it’s time to do these turkeys, the equipment has to be working.”
Like every farmer included in this story, Daigle mentions the increasingly high cost of feed, which has forced him to boost his prices. “I don’t try to compete with supermarkets in price,” he says. “They [commercial producers] feed ’em antibiotics and growth hormones.” He feeds his birds straight grain that is a mixture of oats, soybeans and corn. “They eat constantly. They fatten up real fat. That makes a difference, too.”
In 2010 Daigle charged $3.25 per pound and expects to charge more this year (the price had not been firmly established by the time the magazine went to press). “Apparently they’re worth it, because I don’t have any trouble selling them,” he notes. “For the holidays, people are willing to pay the extra. Every year I sell out.”
Bob’s Turkey Farm in Lancaster is a family-owned operation that was founded by Robert Van Hoof in 1954. Every year the farm raises around 15,000 Reed’s Breed turkeys, a broad-breasted white variety that originated in Andover. Roughly two-thirds of those are for Thanksgiving. When he started the farm, Van Hoof just raised chickens, but he allowed his sons Jack and Robert, 11 and 12 at the time, to raise a pen of turkeys each. He learned pretty quickly that the latter were more lucrative, so over the next few years he shifted his business to turkeys. “There’s no money in chickens,” he says. Today another son, Richard, is responsible for breeding the birds.
Situated on 11.2 acres, Bob’s, like Raymond’s, is one of the few local farms that breed, raise and slaughter its own turkeys (as opposed to buying and raising the poults). The family began breeding in 1966. On the advice of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the farm is closed to visitors, to protect the animals from disease. In addition to the birds they raise, the Van Hoofs sell poults to other farms in New England and New York, but will not ship them outside the region because of the mortality risk, explains Susan Miner, Van Hoof’s daughter. They sell the chicks the day they hatch or when they are a day old.
The farm’s roughly 900 hens (female turkeys) lay about 500 eggs each day—about one egg every other day per hen. Farmworkers collect the eggs from the nests five times per day. Thanksgiving turkeys hatch in late June and early July. The chicks stay in an open, covered barn for 12 weeks, where they are protected from predators. “We freerange them as soon as it’s safe,” says Miner. Wild turkeys, which have been invading the suburbs in recent years, are “starting to become an issue,” she explains. The farm begins slaughtering the birds in early September. ese are vacuum-packed frozen for customers—many of which are businesses—who like to buy their holiday birds early. e majority of Thanksgiving turkeys, however, are processed the week before the holiday and sold fresh. “We don’t sell anything that we don’t raise here,” says Miner.
Two local farms, Natick Community Organic Farm and Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, raise poults from Bob’s Turkey Farm. Natick Com munity has been selling Thanksgiving turkeys for 20 years, raising about 180 every season. “They’re delicious. The meat is lovely and moist and uniform,” says Trish Wesley Umbrell, farm administrator. “It’s becoming family tradition in my house. I make sure we eat every blessed last drop of the bird.”
The newborn chicks are kept in an indoor stall for four to six weeks, depending on their size and the weather. Then they move to the turkey house. The turkeys go out to pasture during the day, and stay inside at night, where they are safe from the urban wildlife. “They lead very good lives,” Wesley Umbrell says, with “lots of lovely grain, good sunshine, lots of space.
“We farm in the public eye because we want people to know where their food comes from and part of that food is meat,” she continues. “We don’t sugar-coat anything. Everyone can come see their birds before they eat them. Not everybody wants to, but that’s part of the lesson, too. If you can make an educated choice, you’re going to be a better consumer.”
Wesley Umbrell notes that raising turkeys is a significant financial investment for the farm. “Feed prices are astronomical,” she says. Natick Community’s birds enjoy a diet of organic feed that includes organic roasted soybeans, organic corn, vitamins, minerals and probiotics. During the last four weeks before they are slaughtered, each turkey eats a pound of feed a day. Last year the farm charged $4.50 per pound for turkeys and may have to increase the price this year.
Though customers order holiday turkeys in advance, “We don’t take pre-orders for a certain weight [because] the quintessential ideal of a 20-pound bird doesn’t actually exist in nature,” Wesley Umbrell says. Farm members receive a priority until October 15, when ordering opens to the general public. But on pickup day, the birds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. e majority of the farm’s Thanksgiving customers have been buying their turkeys there for years, but there are a few new ones every holiday. “Turkey pickup day for us is fun. It’s like a reunion,” she says.
Kate Stillman, who owns Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, raises poults from Bob’s as well as Blue Slates, a heritage breed that she buys from a different breeder. When she bought The Turkey Farm in Hardwick, she had no desire to raise turkeys. In fact, she planned to change the nearly 200-year-old farm’s name. But everybody in the area knew it as The Turkey Farm. So Stillman, who grew up on her father’s nearby produce farm, added turkeys to the selection of animals she raises.
Stillman’s turkeys are not certified organic because, she says, “I’m not into buying strictly organic feed.” But they are free-range, and eat a balance of grains and whatever they pick at when they are outside. Stillman says the heritage birds are “far more adventurous” than the others, but all are happy and well fed.
Stillman takes her turkeys to a slaughterhouse in Vermont that she selected because she respected its methods. “We pride ourselves on using small folks. They recognize my animals. I like the crew. I know all the crew personally,” she says, adding that they all want to buy her turkeys. “They talk about the fat color and the fat content, the quality of the fat, how easy they are to process. I take that as a compliment.” The turkeys are all sold fresh, the day after they are processed. The farm does not take orders for specific sizes, but offers small (8 to 15 pounds), medium (16 to 20 pounds), large (20 to 24 pounds) and extra large (25 pounds or more). Heritage turkeys are smaller, seven to 15 pounds. Because the farm has significant number of CSA members, many of the turkeys go to these customers, but they also take preorders, and “the phone rings off the hook,” Stillman says.
Because they participate in several Boston-area farmers markets, Stillman’s offers Thanksgiving drop-offs in Boston, Cambridge and Jamaica Plain. This makes a busy time even more so for the farm staff. But there’s a perfect reward at the end. “We go and go and go all spring and summer,” says Stillman. “We sit down to Thanksgiving and everything on the table is ours. You kind of get what Thanksgiving is.”
Where to buy your turkey:
Turkeys are sold through their farm store. Turkey orders can be placed any time after October 1. The farm store also sells prepared turkey dishes, sides and desserts, all prepared on site. Turkey $3.09 per pound, but price may change.
Bob’s Turkeys are also available at the following local retail stores:
Elm Turkey Farm
They begin taking Thanksgiving orders in early November. Turkeys are available for pickup at the farm Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week. Charles Daigle also makes and sells turkey pies and gravy. Turkey around $3.30 per pound, depending on cost of feed.
The farm is taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys now from farm members and will accept them after October 15 from nonmembers. Turkeys come frozen. Pickup is on Tuesday, November 15. $4.50 to $5 per pound, depending on feed prices.
Turkeys are sold at their farm store. They start taking orders for Thanksgiving after Labor Day. Rischer says the store never runs out of turkey, but to make sure to get the size you want, it’s best to order early. The farm store, run by Rischer’s wife and daughters, also sells prepared turkey dishes, stuffing, gravy and turkey pies made from his mother’s recipe. Turkey $3.09 per pound, but may go up, depending on cost of feed.
Orders can be placed now by phone, e-mail or in person at one of Stillman’s farmers market sites. Prices are: $100 for a heritage turkey; $65 for small, $80 for medium, $100 for large and $125 for extra-large traditional turkeys.
Roasting turkey could not be simpler, and while there are numerous variations on the theme—brining the bird or not, stuffed or unstuffed, seasoning alternatives—Bob’s and Raymond’s Turkey Farms both offer simple instructions on their websites.
For stuffed birds, Raymond’s recommends approximately 20 minutes per pound in a 350° oven. Place an inch of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, with the neck and giblets if desired. Tent a piece of aluminum foil over the turkey. Check it every hour to hour and a half, basting and adding water to pan, if needed. Using a meat thermometer, check the temperature between the leg and breast. When it reaches 170°, remove foil to brown. When the turkey reaches 185°, it is done. Bob’s offers the following chart, also for stuffed turkeys, at 350º in a covered roasting pan:
12–16 pound birds.....3 to 3½ hours
16–20 pound birds.....3½ to 4 hours
20–25 pound birds.....4 to 4½ hours
25–30 pound birds.....5 to 5½ hours
Baste turkey as needed throughout roasting. Remove cover and brown for last 30 minutes, if necessary. Turkey is done when a thermometer inserted between the leg and breast reads 175° to 185°. Unstuffed turkeys should roast more quickly, about 15 minutes per pound.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in
several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com, and oneforthetable. com. Andrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.