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Photo by Cherie Langlois
This year it was a little easier to say good-bye to our turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Now that you’ve hopefully had time to finish your Thanksgiving turkey leftovers (our turkey soup was fabulous, by the way), I thought it might be OK to share a few last pics of my turkeys taken before they were … well … you know. Maybe because I tried not to baby this flock quite so much, I found that saying good-bye to them felt somewhat easier than last year. Easier, but not easy, and I’m now convinced that it will never be easy for me to raise an animal with love and care and then take its life away (even when I don’t actually dispatch it myself)—and that this is the way it should be.
Speaking of easy, wandering through the supermarket before Thanksgiving, I marveled at all of the anonymous, inexpensive and ready-to-go industrial turkey giants laid to rest in bins there. Specifically, how very different they were from the svelte heritage birds that had taken a goodly chunk of our time to raise and devoured a small fortune in feed on our farm. But I felt thankful for that difference, and for my turkeys, and here’s why:
Photo by Cherie Langlois
This year, we reared Bourbon Red turkeys (left) and Royal Palm turkeys (right).
According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans say they eat turkey at Thanksgiving, and this adds up to about 46 million turkeys devoured just at this time of year. The majority are Broad Breasted White turkeys selected during the 1950s to grow fast and produce ample white muscle meat on a grain diet while living their short, sad lives packed into temperature-controlled confinement buildings. That means no trotting about to forage for bugs and weeds and no basking in the sunshine, as my happy turkeys loved to do. Unlike the colorful heritage birds that provided meat, eggs and bug control on family farms before the advent of industrial farming, commercial turkeys have lost the ability to reproduce without the aid of artificial insemination. The short-legged toms can’t fly or walk properly, and their out-of-proportion muscle mass puts tremendous strain on their skeletons and organs, often causing lameness and heart attacks.
It was this guilt-inducing—and unappetizing—knowledge that led my family and me to try pasture-raising our own turkeys to eat. Rather than go with BB’s, we opted for hardier, slower-growing Bourbon Reds, a lovely heritage turkey variety developed during the 1800s in Bourbon County, Ky. Roasted to perfection, our first heritage Thanksgiving turkey blew us away with its intense flavor, firm texture and far less salty taste. Add to this how much we’d enjoyed raising these personable birds (pecking habit and all)—and we were hooked.
This year we reared Bourbon Reds again, and added two Royal Palms, a striking, smaller variety often used for exhibition developed in the 1920s. Next year, I think I’d like to try wild-turkey-looking Bronze. My ultimate turkey dream? Settle on a favorite heritage variety and keep a breeding pair or two that I can name, spoil to my heart’s content and let live to a ripe old turkey age.