Valley Bounty: Turkeys

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, November feels like turkey season. But for turkey farmers across the Valley, the birds have been on their mind for months.

Robert Rollins owns D&R Farm in Hampden with his wife Diane. For the pair, turkey season began back in the beginning of July when their first shipment of one-day-old turkey poults (baby turkeys) arrived. During the first few weeks of the poults’ life, Rollins carefully controlled their environment in a brooder coop in his barn. “It has to be 95-98 degrees in the brooder coop,” he explained. “They like that for almost two weeks.” As the birds matured, Rollins slowly brought the temperature down. By the time the they were six weeks old, they were ready to leave the barn.

Rollins raises his turkeys in fenced-in pens in the woods. Some producers prefer to keep their birds indoors, but Rollins was raised in a family of turkey farmers that believed that raising birds outside makes for a tastier bird. For one, it gives the turkeys the opportunity to supplement their diet beyond their corn and soybean feed. “They eat bugs, they eat the grass, and right now they’re eating the leaves,” he said. “”I always believe, and it’s what my parents and grandparents did, you keep them happy, you keep food and a lot of water in front of them, and they will eat what they want.”

Raising the birds outdoors also aligns with the functioning of their gizzards. The gizzard is an organ in a turkey’s digestive tract that makes up for its lack of teeth. As the birds peck the ground for food, they pick up small rocks, that filter down into their gizzard. When food passes through the gizzard, the muscular organ grinds the small rocks against the food, breaking it down for digestion. “If you raise them indoors,” Rollins pointed out, “they don’t get stones. So, they have to use more stomach muscles and more gizzard muscle for grinding up all their food.” This extra work from the digestive organs, Rollins says, results in a differently tasting bird.

Leaving the birds outside in the autumn can come with its own risks. “Last year we had a cold snap with a snowstorm, and we got five or six inches. Once it starts turning snow, they don’t like the ground, they don’t like walking in the snow,” Rollins explained. Grumpy turkeys won’t grow to their full potential. “If they’re unhappy, they won’t eat. They won’t walk around. They basically just sit there. And what they do eat is just to stay warm, they’re not gaining weight.”

Fortunately, the weather has remained mild and Rollins’ turkeys are still putting on plenty of weight for Thanksgiving. He won’t slaughter his birds until the week preceding the holiday. “Since my parents had the big turkey farm, that’s what I learned. You want to keep them fresh and slaughter them as close as possible to Thanksgiving.”

Buying a local turkey this Thanksgiving is a great way to support local farms and bring a delicious addition to your table while you’re at it. Turkey farms throughout the Valley, including D&R Farm, are accepting orders now. It’s best to call early because they often sell out! You can visit CISA’s online guide to local food and farms to find a turkey farm near you.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)