R5 Talkin' Turkey

How many turkeys, on average, do you have at Cabbage Hill?
About eighty; around sixty are going to be for sale.

Which varieties of turkeys do you breed?
We have several heritage breeds—Blue Slate, Royal Palm, American Bronze, Bourbon Red—plus a few large white turkeys, the kind most people see in the supermarket.

Is there a big difference in taste among the varieties?
Oh, yes. My sister-in-law did a taste test: we put a Butterball from the A&P up against a Bourbon Red. Big difference. You’d think the big fat ones from the supermarket would be more moist, but they’re not.

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What makes for a tasty turkey?
A lot has to do with how you feed them. We feed ours organic grain and, towards the fattening-up stage, some sunflower seeds too. They also forage naturally on grass, insects, nuts—whatever they want to eat. If you’re gonna live a short life, you should at least enjoy yourself. Supermarket turkeys are housed in warehouse-style coops with artificial lighting, have lost their ability to fly and breed naturally, and eat a commercial diet.

Summarize the life cycle of your turkeys.
It’s quick. We hatch them in May. For the first month, they’re confined for their own safety. Then we’ll let them stay in a bigger confined area outdoors, where they can live naturally. By halfway through summer, we’re anxiously waiting for them to show us that they can fly. By then, they’ll know where their home is, and they’ll know their coop—even if they all get so big they don’t fit in it anymore, they’ll stay near it. The fear of them wandering away disappears, though they’re still impressionable enough to walk away with wild turkeys.

Some wander off with wild ones—they all get along?
They do. This year we’ve had some wild bachelors who’ve been eager to join a few of our older hens.

So you have young wild bachelor toms chasing cougar heritage hens?
Yeah, we have eight who’ve stayed on since last year; basically, I couldn’t catch ’em. They’ve forgiven me and we’re friends again. Now they’re serving as foster parents to this year’s batch.

Do you raise other birds?
We raise chickens and guinea fowl with the turkeys, because chickens program themselves very quickly to stay by the coop, and turkeys are always looking for leadership. Even though they’re several times the size of a chicken, they’ll follow a chicken’s lead.

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So, no pun intended, is there a pecking order between the chickens and turkeys?
No doubt about it—chickens are smarter. The guinea fowl are very loud and cautious; they’re an alarm system for predators, like hawks.

How big do the turkeys get by slaughtering time?
The bigger hens grow to twelve pounds; most are eight to ten. The toms are usually around fourteen. Some can grow to eighteen—a few to twenty.

How long would they live otherwise?
Ten years.

Is it a sad day for you when you take them to the slaughterhouse?
Yeah, it is. There’s always a little a lump in my throat. I stay with them until the last moment. It’s hard. But once
you actually see them cleaned up, packaged, and de-feathered, and they start to look more like dinner, the lump in your throat clears up and you’re like, “Wow, I’m proud of you guys. You look really good!”

What do you eat on Thanksgiving?
Turkey! Oh yeah, I’m eager to see how our work all year has turned out.

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