A mat­ter of taste

In turkey grow­ing, some fa­vor quan­tity, oth­ers add a bit more fla­vor.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MAGSAM AND BRIAN FAN­NEY

In Arkansas, tur­keys are a big business that keeps get­ting big­ger.

Although some birds are raised or­gan­i­cally in pas­tures, and some have pedi­grees that can be traced back hun­dreds of years to clas­sic breeds, most of the mil­lions des­tined to be the main cour­ses this week on Thanks­giv­ing ta­bles across the na­tion come from large-scale grow­ing op­er­a­tions.

This year, Arkansas sur­passed North Carolina in the num­ber of tur­keys raised, pro­duc­ing more than any state ex­cept Min­nesota.

Cargill Inc. has a turkey pro­cess­ing plant and feed mill in Spring­dale. But­ter­ball LLC has fa­cil­i­ties in Ozark and Huntsville. Those two com­pa­nies process the majority of turkey in the state. About 2,600 peo­ple work in the com­pa­nies’ Arkansas plants, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Turkey Fed­er­a­tion.

Cargill and But­ter­ball own the tur­keys that they process, but con­tract with in­de­pen­dent grow­ers to raise them from poults to adult­hood. Ev­ery de­tail of their lives is reg­u­lated — even the tem­per­a­ture of their en­vi­ron­ments — and ev­ery year, the com­pa­nies pro­duce mil­lions of the nearly iden­ti­cal tur­keys.

“We be­lieve there’s room in the mar­ket­place for all types of pro­duc­tion sys­tems,” Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said. “But in terms of feed­ing large num­bers of peo­ple with af­ford­able, whole­some, nu­tri­tious pro­tein, you have to have some type of scale to be able to do that.”

Out­side of the big turkey op­er­a­tions, some farm­ers in Arkansas raise a dif­fer­ent kind of Thanks­giv­ing bird. Some raise the tur­keys in pas­tures where they can eat grass and for­age for bugs. Oth­ers work to pre­serve and im­prove on her­itage birds that are the equiv­a­lent of turkey blue bloods.

At Moun­tain Mead­ows Farm in Hat­field, just south of Mena, Mary and Don Kel­ley have raised about 50 tur­keys for Thanks­giv­ing. The birds are among many an­i­mals, in­clud­ing cat­tle, pigs and chick­ens, that the Kel­leys raise on their 200-acre farm.

The Kel­leys are in their 50s and have been farm­ing since 1984. They’ve been op­er­at­ing Moun­tain Mead­ows Farm since 2005, and both have jobs be­sides farm­ing.

Their tur­keys live in por­ta­ble pens that are moved reg­u­larly so the birds stay on fresh grass. The birds also con­sume a feed that has been cer­ti­fied as not be­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied. Rais­ing the tur­keys is la­bor-in­ten­sive and costly, Mary Kel­ley said.

The tur­keys are mar­keted mostly by word of mouth, with a lit­tle so­cial me­dia tossed in. Kel­ley said all of the birds are spo­ken for quickly, and there is al­ways more de­mand than sup­ply. The birds are pro­cessed by a third party at an ap­proved U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture fa­cil­ity.

The tur­keys are Broad Breasted Whites, the kind most Americans are fa­mil­iar with.

“They’re mutts,” Mary Kel­ley said with a chuckle.

The tur­keys sell for $5 a pound and range in size from 11 to 21 pounds.

By com­par­i­son, a com­mer­cially grown 16-pound young tom turkey costs about $1.13 per pound in Arkansas, ac­cord­ing to the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

The tur­keys raised at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Moun­tain Farm in Roland, about 30 min­utes north­west of Lit­tle Rock, are any­thing but mutts. Smith, a tele­vi­sion host and au­thor, raises her­itage tur­keys.

To be a her­itage turkey, it must be one of eight va­ri­eties listed in the Amer­i­can Poul­try As­so­ci­a­tion’s Stan­dard for Per­fec­tion. Most of the va­ri­eties were those ac­cepted in 1874, and they share three key re­quire­ments — nat­u­ral mat­ing, a long pro­duc­tive out­door life­span and a slow growth rate.

Smith founded the Arkansas-based Her­itage Poul­try Con­ser­vancy in 2009. The con­ser­vancy uses a se­ries of poul­try shows where cash re­wards are paid to top ex­hibitors as a way to en­cour­age breed­ing of her­itage tur­keys.

Early on, Smith’s ef­forts fo­cused on pre­serv­ing the her­itage breeds, but now he’s work­ing to im­prove the birds.

This year, Smith raised 75 her­itage tur­keys — some Blue Slates and some Span­ish Blacks — with 50 des­tined for din­ner ta­bles.

Smith said he’s been work­ing to in­crease the size of the tur­keys now that there’s a large enough gene pool to be able to breed for spe­cific

traits. Some of Smith’s Span­ish Blacks tip the scales at 30 pounds, close to the breed stan­dard of 33 pounds set in 1874.

One rea­son he’s fo­cus­ing on the Span­ish Black turkey is its taste.

“The black has a rich fla­vor pro­file,” Smith said. “I think they taste great.”

He said de­mand for her­itage tur­keys, as well as other poul­try raised in pas­tures, is in­creas­ing as peo­ple look for a lit­tle some­thing dif­fer­ent. But com­pared with con­ven­tional tur­keys, the her­itage birds tend to be more ex­pen­sive to raise and take longer to reach ma­tu­rity.

“We hear this across the coun­try,” Smith said. “Chefs and con­sumers are will­ing to pay a pre­mium price. De­mand has out­stripped sup­ply.”


The USDA doesn’t track the num­ber of pas­ture-raised tur­keys in Arkansas, but it says 29 mil­lion com­mer­cial tur­keys were raised in the state this year — 1 mil­lion more than last year.

North Carolina raised 34 mil­lion tur­keys in 2013. That num­ber slipped to 28 mil­lion this year.

Jesse Grimes, a poul­try spe­cial­ist at the North Carolina Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion Ser­vice, said one rea­son for the de­cline was the clo­sure of a House of Rae­ford Farms turkey-slaugh­ter­ing plant. The plant had em­ployed nearly 1,000 peo­ple.

“Some [turkey pro­duc­ers] got con­tracts with other com­pa­nies,” he said. “Many went out of business.”

Bruce Ten­cleve, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of com­mod­ity ac­tiv­i­ties and reg­u­la­tory af­fairs at the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said another fac­tor was the age of the turkey-rais­ing houses in North Carolina.

“When you get old, you can ei­ther re­build or shut the doors,” he said.

While North Carolina’s turkey in­dus­try was shrink­ing, Arkansas’ 550 com­mer­cial turkey pro­duc­ers were build­ing new fa­cil­i­ties.

“In Arkansas, we have an ex­pan­sion go­ing on, not a rapid ex­pan­sion, but it’s steadily in­creas­ing,” Ten­cleve said.

The up­side to rais­ing chick­ens and tur­keys in pas­tures is the gen­er­ally low start-up costs and the abil­ity to slowly work into the business or run a small op­er­a­tion. Ex­pand­ing is vi­able be­cause larger-scale op­er­a­tions are more eco­nom­i­cal, but time and la­bor costs are chal­lenges, said Mike Bad­ger, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Pas­tured Poul­try Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, a non­profit trade group.

Martin of Cargill said com­mer­cially grown tur­keys on Thanks­giv­ing plates Thurs­day are the re­sult of more than two years of plan­ning and one year of pro­duc­tion.

“There’s such a high de­mand in such a nar­row win­dow of time that in or­der to have ad­e­quate sup­plies of whole bird tur­keys, we have to process them through­out the year, and they’re frozen,” Martin said. “For Thanks­giv­ing 2014, we be­gan har­vest­ing tur­keys the day after Thanks­giv­ing last year.”


Smaller grow­ers say hard work and business savvy are nec­es­sary for their op­er­a­tions.

Adam Franklin of Red Hat Farms in Ben­tonville raised 25 tur­keys in a pas­ture for Thanks­giv­ing this year. He also runs a com­mu­nity-spon­sored agri­cul­ture op­er­a­tion where folks buy a share of the crops they grow and raise free-range chick­ens for their meat and eggs.

This year, Franklin, 29, is rais­ing Broad Breasted Whites in large, mo­bile pens that in­clude spa­ces for roost­ing. Fenc­ing is elec­tri­fied at night to keep preda­tors at bay. Last year, he raised some her­itage tur­keys and let them free-range. They ended up nest­ing on neigh­bors’ fences, hop­ping on neigh­bors’ cars and wan­der­ing over to an ad­ja­cent school.

Franklin said he is not giv­ing up on her­itage breeds, but their cost, slow growth rate and losses to preda­tors re­quired him to sell them for up­ward of $10 a pound.

This year his tur­keys are sell­ing for $5 a pound.

Mov­ing the birds to keep them on fresh grass takes time and ef­fort. Franklin said with­out the help of his brother-in-law Trent Har­mon, he’d have a hard time jug­gling turkey-rais­ing and his other job.

Franklin pro­cesses the birds him­self and makes ar­range­ments to get them to his buy­ers. He said the pro­cess­ing equip­ment is ex­pen­sive, but it does dou­ble-duty with his chicken op­er­a­tion. The birds are pack­aged just like they would be at a store, he said, and it’s worth it to give cus­tomers a prod­uct that looks like they ex­pect it to look.

Even­tu­ally, Franklin hopes to turn the farm into his full­time job. Un­til then, he’ll ex­pand where he can. He said he could eas­ily sell more tur­keys at Thanks­giv­ing, if he had enough hours in the day to in­crease pro­duc­tion.

He said there is no typ­i­cal cus­tomer for his tur­keys, but in gen­eral they’re in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing small farm­ers and hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the peo­ple who grow their food.

In the end though, it gets down to how the turkey tastes, Franklin said. While this year’s birds are much like the ones peo­ple buy in gro­cery stores, they live in the open air, are fed an ex­otic mix of whole grains, and get to munch on as much fresh grass as they like. The re­sult of all that good food is one tasty bird, he in­sisted.

“They’ve got a salad bar ev­ery day,” Franklin said.

Ter­rell Spencer started his Across the Creek Farm near Van Buren with his wife, Carla, in 2007 and quit his job a few years back to farm full time. His pri­mary op­er­a­tion is pas­ture-raised chick­ens, both for meat and eggs. His birds, also, are fed grain that has not been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied.

He sells his broil­ers to in­di­vid­u­als and to North­west Arkansas restau­rants, like ones on Dick­son Street in Fayettevil­le and the Hive in the 21c Ho­tel in down­town Ben­tonville.

This year he raised 50 Broad Breasted White tur­keys to sell for Thanks­giv­ing. They were claimed fast.

He said the tur­keys are sell­ing for about $4.75 a pound and tend to weigh around 15 pounds each.

“It worked out. We could have sold 100 more,” Spencer said.

He said next Thanks­giv­ing, the small op­er­a­tions will be even big­ger, with farm­ers in the Arkansas Sus­tain­able Live­stock Co­op­er­a­tive plan­ning to raise more than 1,600 tur­keys on pas­tures.

“There’s quite a de­mand,” he said. “It’s ex­plod­ing.”


Red Hat Farms owner Adam Franklin feeds his Broad Breasted White tur­keys. He raised 25 tur­keys for this Thanks­giv­ing.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette

Don Kel­ley of Moun­tain Mead­ows Farm checks on his pens that hold pas­ture-raised tur­keys. The Hat­field farmer and his wife, Mary, raised about 50 tur­keys this year.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette

The Span­ish Black breed of turkey is a her­itage va­ri­ety that reaches a stan­dard weight of 33 pounds.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette

P. Allen Smith checks on his Span­ish Black tur­keys at his Moss Moun­tain Farm. Smith said the Span­ish Black has a “rich fla­vor pro­file.”


The Broad Breasted White va­ri­ety of turkey is the most widely grown.


Th­ese Broad Breasted White tur­keys gather around a wa­ter jug at Red Hat Farms in Ben­tonville.

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