Agriculture | Ecotrope

My Local, Heirloom, Organic, Free-Range Turkey

Ecotrope | Nov. 22, 2012 7:02 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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I stumbled upon an opportunity to buy a 12-pound, heritage breed, pasture-raised turkey from a farm just south of Portland this year. It was a more environmentally friendly option that cost $5 a pound.

I stumbled upon an opportunity to buy a 12-pound, heritage breed, pasture-raised turkey from a farm just south of Portland this year. It was a more environmentally friendly option that cost $5 a pound.

It’s my first year eating a heritage breed, pasture raised turkey for Thanksgiving.

My turkey was raised outside on grass in Colton, Oregon, about 35 miles southeast of where I live in Portland. It ate organic feed without antibiotics or growth hormones for 10 months before it was slaughtered at Scio Poultry Processing in Scio, Oregon. And according to its farmer, Kendra Kimbirauskas, my turkey was loved.

It was also, according to Oregon State University Extension Service poultry specialist Jim Hermes, a representative sample of the only turkeys grown in Oregon since the commercial turkey industry left the state in the mid-1990s.

“For local turkeys, that’s all you’re going to find here in Oregon,” said Hermes. “It’s mainly the organic, heritage types, and mainly for the holidays. It’s very seasonal. Most people don’t roast a turkey at any time of the year other than the holidays.”

This is the second year Kimbirauskas has been raising turkeys. She raised 50 birds last year and 100 this year. Next year she’s aiming for 200.

It takes about 10 months to raise her turkeys, all of which are threatened or endangered breeds according to the American Livestock Conservancy.

Before brining the turkey, I separated the skin from the breast meat with my bare hands.

Before brining the turkey, I separated the skin from the breast meat with my bare hands.

“What has happened with industrialization is companies that control food have changed the genetics of the animal to fit into their system,” said Kimbirauskas.

“If you were to go to a supermarket and buy your mainstream turkey, you’re buying a bird that cannot reproduce naturally. It’s been a bird that’s been selectively bred over generation so it gets big quickly. It doesn’t want to move around. It wants to sit in one place and get fat.”

In contrast, the heritage breed turkeys are bred to live outside, she said. Her birds roost in the Douglas fir trees on her farm, not in a warehouse.

“They want to run around and eat grasshoppers and butterflies,” Kimbirauskas said. “They’re comfortable being outside. Your modern industrial turkey would probably have a hard time surviving in an outdoor environment.”

Because her turkeys aren’t fed antibiotics and they’re not cooped up inside, their waste poses less of a threat to nearby waterways, she said.

“It’s really important to me that I walk my talk,” she said. “That I raise animals in a way that respects the animals, that isn’t invasive to the community and doesn’t harm the environment. We want people to know that our animals are cared for and loved.”

The farm doesn’t have official certifications, though it has applied to be Animal Welfare Approved.

Kimbirauskas said her biggest challenge is protecting the turkeys from predators.

“Turkeys require daily maintenance,” she said. “Every morning, every night, we go out and make sure they’re well and healthy and happy. That’s not necessarily something you find with other turkey growers. In these large companies that raise so many turkeys at any given time, it’s hard for any turkey to have individual attention.”

In a few hours I'll find out whether heritage breed, pasture raised, organic, local turkeys really taste better than the other kind.

In a few hours I'll find out whether heritage breed, pasture raised, organic, local turkeys really taste better than the other kind.

The cost of the average turkey this year costs around $1.30 a pound. Mine cost $5 a pound. That’s a pretty big difference.

“It costs more, but you’re also paying for better feed, labor, the quality of the bird,” said Kimbirauskas.

The birds also have a happier life, she said.

“We really love the turkeys,” she said. ” You can’t help but laugh when you hear a bunch of turkeys gobbling and then the turkeys will respond to you laughing and they’ll gobble some more and it’s this cycle between humans and birds.”

Kimbirauskas said because her turkeys live outside, move around a lot and eat things like bugs and grass, their meat has more texture and, some say, better flavor than other turkeys. I put my turkey in the oven about an hour ago. So, we’ll see about that…

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