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Traditional or trendy, turkeys are big business in central Pa.

Written by Jim Hook/The Chambersburg Public Opinion | Nov 25, 2017 4:40 AM
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Most free-ranging turkeys, such as these at The Family Cow farm in Greene Township, Franklin County, have been frozen in preparation for Thanksgiving 2017. (Photo: Courtesy Chambersburg Public Opinion)

(Chambersburg) -- Revere the turkey on Thanksgiving, whether you pardon or laugh at its conduct the rest of the year.

America's annual family feast has plated prosperity in the form of a roast turkey. Scrooge in the 1843 classic "A Christmas Carol" ordered the biggest prize turkey -- not a goose -- for Tiny Tim Cratchit's family.

Twenty years later President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Eventually the native American bird became the preferred centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table.

Ben Franklin had preferred a grander fate for the American turkey. Two years after the U.S. Great Seal was adopted with the bald eagle at its center, Franklin wrote to his daughter Sarah that the turkey would have been a better choice. The bald eagle was "bird of bad moral character" because it steals its food and is too lazy to fish for himself. The "more respectable" turkey was "a bird of courage."

Today turkeys run on two tracks. Wild turkeys have been known to outfox the craftiest of camouflaged hunters. Flightless domestic turkeys however have a legendary reputation as dimwits.

Some turkey farmers have struck a middle ground between wild and domestic birds.

The meat is different on wild and domestic birds. Traditional domestic turkeys have a lot of white meat, while wild turkeys are mostly dark meat.

It has to do with the birds' circulation, according to Sandra Miller, a small farmer in Franklin County. Wild turkeys run and fly. Domestic turkeys only run, so their breast meat is white.

Miller raised range-free turkeys about a decade ago, but gave it up.

"When I stated doing free-range birds, I was the only game in town," she said. "I found I could raise broilers or turkeys. I could not do both. Broilers are quicker to market. People eat more chicken than turkey."

Turkey consumption has more than doubled in the U.S. since 1970, but the bird remains America's fourth most popular meat, according to the National Turkey Federation. The average American eats about 16 pounds a year, compared to 89 pounds of chicken.

Turkey is big in Franklin County. The county ranked 81st among all U.S. counties in the number of turkeys. Franklin County ranks third among Pennsylvania's turkey-producing counties, and Pennsylvania is the sixth largest producer of turkey among the 50 states.

Farmers under contract to poultry conglomerates produce nearly all the turkey in the region. Franklin County farmers raised nearly 885,000 head, according to the U.S. Agriculture Census of 2012. Adams County farmers raised 773,852 turkeys.

Several local small farmers are breaking with traditional poultry farming and raising small free-ranging or pastured flocks. The birds get exercise as they forage for insects, nuts and worms. The farmer moves the turkeys' condo to clean grass every day.

Customers claim that meat from free-range turkeys is juicer and more flavorful. It's also pricey. A range-fed turkey can cost $100.

Mary Ann Oyler delivered her farm's 155 turkeys to the butcher last week after watching over them for three months.

"They were my buddies," Oyler said. "We like Thanksgiving. Everybody's happy to get their turkey. It's just part of life."

Customers sometimes dropped by to help hand feed the flock.

The turkeys "know when you're coming to feed them," she said. "They get apple treats -- pumice from cider press. They have a good life."

Oyler's Organic Farms and Market, 400 Pleasant Valley Road, Biglerville, grows Broad Breasted White turkeys.

"We found out that customers like white meat," Oyler said. "It takes longer to finish a heritage bird."

Miller said she raised heritage birds, Burbon Red turkeys. Customers told her they wanted a heritage turkey, but were disappointed to find less breast meat. Even though demand soared from 20 birds for Thanksgiving to 100, Miller grew discouraged. Turkeys are destructive and eat a lot. Their wings must be clipped. Neighbors complain about escapees. Sometimes the turkeys pile on one another and suffocate each other.

"You really shouldn't be talking to me about turkeys," she said. "I really hated it. They're close to dinosaurs. They're ravenous. They're dumb."

And there were market forces at play beyond the on-farm economics.

"As American consumers, we've come to expect getting a turkey when we spend $200 at Giant or Walmart," Miller said. "It's a give-away item."

Even so, Oyler's customer base extends 100 miles from ther farm.

"We're on the road to nowhere, but people seem to find us," she said.

 


This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Chambersburg Public Opinion

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