Heritage turkeys prove worth time, effort

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ELBERTON, Ga. --- It's not that turkeys are stupid; it's just that their social nature sometimes gets the better of them.

When farmer Tim Young walks into his flock of gobblers at Nature's Harmony Farm near Elberton, they gather around with apparent glee -- oblivious to the fate that awaits them this week.

They inspect his shoes and jacket zippers, peck, scratch and take luxurious dust baths in the section of pasture that he has assigned them.

"Turkeys are naturally gregarious -- much more so than other birds," Mr. Young said as his legs disappeared behind a crowd of curious toms and hens. "If we didn't have this fence up, they'd wander right up to the doorstep, follow you right into the house. When they get out (of the fence), we find them on top of the truck in the garage."

Though this is Mr. Young's first flock of 120 heritage-breed turkeys, each had been promised by midsummer to a buyer who lives within an hour or two of the farm -- and 50 people were on a waiting list. Like the rest of his livestock -- he also raises chickens, sheep, cows and hogs -- Mr. Young's turkeys grow up in humane, "free range" conditions with the opportunity to go outdoors to forage and wander around pastures at the farm.

This first flock has flown right into a booming market: Demand for locally grown food in northeast Georgia has spiked over the past two years, as shown by the popularity of the fledgling Athens farmers market and by the 1,600 people who joined a locally grown buying cooperative.

Despite the faltering economy, livestock farmers are finding no shortage of customers willing to pay a few dollars more to obtain locally grown meat, says Eric Wagoner, the proprietor of Athens Locally Grown -- a Web site (athens.locallygrown.net) that allows Athens shoppers to buy directly from local farmers.

"They sell hundreds of dollars of meat every week," Mr. Wagoner said. "People like the taste, the connection to land and just knowing where their food comes and that it's safe."

Still, only three of the 62 farmers who sell food on Athens Locally Grown offer meat.

For seven years, Mr. Wagoner's site has been linking farmers to families who want locally grown food. His customer base skyrocketed about two years ago amid news stories about salmonella-tainted spinach, he said.

The rising popularity of locally grown meat is good news for farmers such as Mr. Young, but not such good news for his turkeys.

When he and his wife, Liz, moved from Massachusetts two years ago, they bought 76 acres off Charles Yeargan Road and set up shop with a couple of dozen cows, some pigs to roam through the woods and a trailer full of chickens. They decided they wouldn't sell their animals outside a 75-mile radius, which reduces the amount of fuel needed in production and distribution. They decided to raise only free-range animals, those that get to forage on well-maintained pastures and in surrounding woodlots.

They vowed to raise breeds that have all but been abandoned by American farmers because they mature slowly or because they don't have many of the qualities that people have come to expect in their meat.

"Part of what we're trying to do is to preserve these old breeds," Mr. Young said. "But, you know, it's kind of ironic. The way that you make sure that these heritage breeds survive is to eat them. You have to create a market for them, or no one's going to grow them."

The Youngs' inaugural turkey flock consists of bourbon reds and Narragansetts, two of America's oldest breeds. After hundreds of years, they still retain some resemblance to their wild cousins. They're fully grown at eight months, versus 31/2 months for supermarket turkeys.

The birds sold in supermarkets are mostly broad-breasted whites, which were bred to mature quickly and to have much larger breasts because most consumers prefer white turkey meat to dark. They couldn't survive in a free-range environment, Mrs. Young said.

Niche farms such as Nature's Harmony can afford to spend the extra time raising older breeds because their customers are willing to pay more for the same kind of turkey that their ancestors might have raised and eaten.

At $4.75 a pound and with a wait time of about eight months, cooks who pre-ordered the birds have high expectations.

"We wanted an organic turkey and something that didn't have all the basting fluid inside," said Elizabeth Jaeger, who ordered her family's bird from the Youngs in February. "Even if I make the effort to order a turkey from Whole Foods (an organic grocery store), there is still a chance that it's coming from a factory farm somewhere. I know, buying a turkey from Tim, that I'm buying a turkey who has had a good life."

Though waiting eight months to send the birds to market might be a more natural way to raise turkeys, it does pose a problem for the farmers -- personal attachment.

At the end of the growing season, the Youngs have to slaughter their feathered friends, freeze them and deliver them.

As they started counting down the days until they said goodbye, they realized how much they were going to miss their gregarious gobblers.

"We've given all of our animals names and treated them like pets," Mrs. Young said. "You're going to miss them, but you realize that their purpose is to be eaten and your job is to give them the best life you can.

"I think it's much more respectful to go ahead and acknowledge that the animal does have a personality, and a life."

"You give them a great life," Mr. Young added, "until they're great on the table."


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