NEW SHARON, Maine -- After being herded into pens on Bob Neal's turkey farm, the gobblers start attacking the salad bar like there's no tomorrow.
Of course, with Thanksgiving drawing near, precious few tomorrows await the 2,200 gobblers on Neal's 60-acre spread. But until then, life is good - Neal's birds are free-range turkeys, with plenty of room to roam and socialize, unlike their less fortunate peers who spend their short lives crowded in huge barns.
The result, said Neal, is turkeys that don't require stress-reducing antibiotics given most birds in their feed.
"They're in turkey heaven," he said.
Free-range turkeys are a niche market, making up only a small percentage of the nation's overall production of nearly 270 million birds, according to the National Turkey Federation, which had no figures on how many of the more than 6,000 U.S. turkey farms are free-range. The birds appeal to shoppers looking for additive-free food or those concerned about humane treatment of animals.
"Some consumers prefer to know that their turkey had the ability to roam free," said Sherrie Rosenblatt, the federation's public relations director.
Many advocates of free-range poultry say it tastes better. And Neal said the diet of premium feed he buys from Canada helps produce a tastier, more tender turkey.
Rosenblatt, however, said she detects no difference in taste between free-range turkeys and other birds. "It's all personal preference," she said.
Regardless of taste, free-range turkeys command a higher price than regular birds sold in supermarkets, especially since many stores offer turkeys for free if customers spend a certain amount of money in the weeks before Thanksgiving. Neal sells his whole turkeys for $2.25 a pound; the stores he supplies charge even more.
But he manages to find takers for his birds.
"I'm going to charge you at least three times what the Shop 'n' Save charges you, and I'm going to sell out and they're not," he said.
Neal sells a good share of his production through health food stores, noting that their customers are less likely to gasp at the birds' price tags.
"For some people there is sticker shock," said Lois Porta of Lois' Natural Marketplace in Scarborough, where Neal's turkeys go for $2.89 a pound. "But honestly, if they try it once, they taste the value in it and they do come back. We sell out; there's more demand than we can supply."
Neal, who raised five flocks this year, gets his birds from West Virginia. They arrive by air in Bangor the day after they hatch, and they spend their first three to eight weeks in the brooder house until they grow enough feathers to provide insulation. At the outset, when the turkeys have virtually no body mass, the building is warmed to 99 degrees by propane heaters.
It takes at least 17 weeks for hens and 19 weeks for toms to reach slaughter weight. Neal's biggest expense, accounting for roughly half the overall cost, is feed. He relies on a mill in Quebec that delivers a corn and soybean mixture that also contains alfalfa, wheat and barley and is certified to be free of genetic engineering.
The recent rise in the value of the Canadian dollar raised the cost of Neal's feed by more than 20 percent, which led to his first price increase in three years.
The birds are constant visitors to the farm's 23 feeders, and Neal explains that turkeys eat 10 percent of their body weight each day. "They say a turkey that doesn't eat for an hour is the equivalent of a human who doesn't eat for 24 hours," he said.
Turkeys have a reputation for stupidity, and Neal allows that much of the intelligence had been bred out of them as the industry aimed for ever-larger birds. He also suggests that a reason they may seem dumb is their farsightedness, which makes it hard for them to see and react to anything up close.
"There are no Nobel Prize winners here," he said. "But they know what they have to know: Where's the food, where's the water, where's the shelter, who's a he, who's a she."
On the Net:
Neal's Web site www.theturkeyfarm.com