A matter of taste
In turkey growing, some favor quantity, others add a bit more flavor.
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 BIRD AS BUSINESS
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.”
SMALL FARMS, HIGH DEMAND
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.”