Business

Heritage turkeys aren’t your usual holiday birds of a feather

Turkeys wander around at one of Coon Rock Farm's free range areas in Rougemont, N.C. Friday. The local sustainable family farm raises lean heritage turkeys for sale each Thanksgiving. Some people gladly pay up to $200 to put these special turkeys for their Thanksgiving plates.
Turkeys wander around at one of Coon Rock Farm's free range areas in Rougemont, N.C. Friday. The local sustainable family farm raises lean heritage turkeys for sale each Thanksgiving. Some people gladly pay up to $200 to put these special turkeys for their Thanksgiving plates. cliddy@newsobserver.com

With their scaly legs and fierce temperaments, lean heritage turkeys appear to have more in common with dinosaurs than their rotund grocery store cousins. And without farmers committed to making these specialty breeds available for holiday tables, they’d just as likely be extinct.

“It’s an interesting concept that we raise these breeds, and kill them, to keep them viable,” says Jamie DeMent of Coon Rock Farm. “Without customers who want to serve them at Thanksgiving, they’d all be gone.”

Before last week, a raucous mix of about 300 specialty birds roamed the sustainable, 55-acre farm, which is tucked into a bend of the Eno River. Their lives were very different from turkeys raised at so-called factory farms, which are kept in tight quarters and fattened up at a rate two to three times faster than those raised outdoors on pasture.

“Most commercial turkeys have gigantic breasts that throw off their balance and make it difficult to get around. It actually prevents Tom and Tina Turkey from natural procreation,” DeMent says, noting that spirited heritage birds enjoy considerable freedom and protein-rich foraging on land shared with cows and pigs. “Our customers want to know that their bird had a happy life. I can’t promise it was happy, but I can guarantee that it was natural and healthy, and its end was humane.”

DeMent and Richard Holcomb, who bought Coon Rock Farm 12 years ago this month, have been raising heritage turkeys for seven years. They started with a few pairs of registered breeds but now save the best from each year’s flock to repopulate the following season’s stock. They grow several types not only to ward against issues that might affect one breed and not others, but also to ensure that they have a range of sizes to meet consumer needs.

“Sometimes there’s just two people at the holiday table but they still want a turkey,” says DeMent, noting that a petite Beltsville White, which resembles a very large chicken, might be ideal. “For those who want a big, meaty bird to feed a crowd, we’ve got them.”

Through a snug plastic bag, DeMent lightly pokes the muscular thigh of a bird that was just processed in the spacious abbatoir located directly across from the front door of her 1870s farm house. “You can tell that bird spent a lot of time walking around here,” she says of the outstretched limb, which might surprise those accustomed to buying a turkey shaped more like a bowling ball. “That’s a lot of meat.”

And it doesn’t come cheap. Like many other small-scale growers, Coon Rock Farm requires a $50 down payment to reserve a bird. Early orders are billed at $9 per pound, with later ones at $10 per pound.

This means that many folks gladly fork over upward of $200 to feed their family and friends – not counting sides. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price for whole, frozen turkey in the South is $1.60 per pound, though many grocery stores slash prices as loss leaders.

DeMent and Holcomb strive to educate and advise their customers about the benefits of consuming heritage poultry.

I had to explain that our birds don’t have pop-up thermometers. If it’s not on them in the pasture, it’s not in the bag.

Jamie DeMent of Coon Rock Farm

“There’s a bigger difference between commercial and heritage birds than other commercial and heritage meats,” Holcolmb says. “With turkeys, 10 percent of a commercial bird’s weight is (saline) flavor enhancer. Without that, it would taste like nothing. And since those birds never move, the texture of the meat is like mush.”

A more muscled bird requires a different approach to cooking, a fact they say many customers forget despite numerous email reminders.

“One year, someone called and said they had cooked their bird for eight hours and the pop-up thermometer still was not working,” DeMent recalls with a laugh. “I had to explain that our birds don’t have pop-up thermometers. If it’s not on them in the pasture, it’s not in the bag.”

Coon Rock Farm recommends having a proper thermometer on hand and generally following the heritage turkey technique prescribed by Food Network host Alton Brown, which is available online. Brown begins with a wet brine to keep the bird moist and flavorful. Cooking starts in a hot oven to turn the fatty skin into a crisp, moisture-retaining shell, then he dials the temperature down to ensure even roasting. The method can yield improved results with commercial turkeys, too.

To keep customers engaged in the months that often pass between order and delivery, Holcomb indulges them with emailed photos and videos of the maturing flock outside doing their thing. It’s kind of like getting pictures of your kids at summer camp.

To keep customers engaged in the months that often pass between order and delivery, Holcomb indulges them with emailed photos and videos of the maturing flock outside doing their thing. It’s kind of like getting pictures of your kids at summer camp, except the kids get to come home and eat the bird with you.

In the days leading to Thanksgiving, Holcomb says they receive constant emails and phone calls, especially from anxious first timers.

“He always hands off the nervous and crying ones to me,” DeMent says. “Sometimes it’s really sad, like their mama died and they have no idea how she did things. One year, I met a lady at a farmers market and she had a complete meltdown as soon as she picked up the bird to take it home. Taking on that responsibility can be a very emotional experience for people.”

DeMent, however, is matter of fact about their family celebration. “We’ll cook one of the turkeys, probably one that got a clipped wing and isn’t pretty enough to sell,” she says as Holcomb shrugs in bemused acknowledgement. “But by the time we sit down to eat, we’re all pretty much over it. We’ll be having ham and enjoying some bourbon.”

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