It's the turkeys' time

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Local farm supplies 'heritage' turkeys for the table

By Walt Reichert

The big red tom fanned out his tail and dropped his wings, exposing his white flight feathers for the benefit of visitors -- or more likely, the hen turkeys clucking away nearby.

Little did he know his showing off would get him nowhere, and his strutting days were numbered.

Last week, this tom joined about five dozen of his red, white and bronze colleagues on a one-way trip to a processor near Bowling Green, who will prepare the birds for Thanksgiving dinners. If it's any consolation to tom, he may be one of the birds chosen to be served in the upscale English Grill at the Brown Hotel in Louisville Thanksgiving Day.

Tom and his colleagues live – or rather, lived – on Earth's Promise Farm on Mount Eden Road, owned by Sandy Corlett and Jason Tucker. Corlett and Tucker raise meat birds – they raised and sold 5,000 broilers last year – and laying hens organically.

The two make a trip to Ohio to pick up special organic feed. The chickens and turkeys are bought as day-old chicks or poults, as baby turkeys are called, and kept warm in a brooder for several weeks.

After that, the birds are allowed to grow up outside, eating grass and insects, along with the organic grains. The growing birds are protected from raccoons, possums, coyotes and foxes by a double wall of electrified netting and a great Pyrenees dog that patrols the fence's perimeter. The fence is moved periodically to allow the birds access to fresh grass. Tucker said the organic grains and access to the great outdoors make for some fine eating.

“People give us rave reviews about the flavor of our birds,” he said.

The 'turkey list'

The turkeys have lived for about 22 weeks since they came to Earth's Promise Farm as day-olds. The toms will weigh up to 40 pounds, the hens several pounds less before heading to a USDA-inspected processor near Bowling Green.'

Brown Hotel chef Laurent Geroli bought about 20 of the turkeys to serve in the hotel restaurant.

“He's not so much sold on the organic, but he appreciates locally-grown and sustainable farms,” Tucker said.

The turkeys that do not head to the Brown Hotel go to customers who got on Corlett's “turkey list” this past summer. When Corlett sells her broilers at the local farmers market and elsewhere, she keeps a list of customers who may be interested in a Thanksgiving turkey.

“I just go down the list when the turkeys are ready and see who's still interested,” Corlett said.

The turkeys sell for $60 if they are less than 20 pounds and $75 if they weigh more than 20 pounds.

That may sound like a lot for a Thanksgiving turkey, but heritage turkeys, such as the bourbon red, are currently fetching prices upwards of $5 per pound with demand far outstripping supply across the U. S.

Corlett said she has been impressed with the performance of the bourbon reds and will try them again next year. Tucker said the only problem he has had with the bourbon reds is they may be a little too close to their wild turkey ancestors for confinement rearing.

“They'll take off and fly up to roost in the trees,” Tucker said.

XXXBOXWhat's a heritage turkey?XXX

Of the 250-300 million turkeys raised for slaughter this year, most will be the broad breasted white variety. The broad breasted white replaced the traditional bronze turkey just after World War 11 to meet processors' demands for a white bird that was easier to pluck than the darker turkey. The broad breasted white grows so quickly and develops such a large breast it has weak bones and cannot mate naturally. Almost all commercial turkeys are artificially inseminated. But the payoff is in lots of white meat, which is preferred by consumers in the U. S.

With the rise of the broad-breasted white, the heritage varieties of turkeys, including the bourbon red (developed in Bourbon County, Ky.), the Narragansett, black Spanish and midget white, nearly became extinct. But within the last decade, turkey farmers have rescued several of the heritage turkey varieties and are offering them to customers from coast-to-coast who are demanding birds that are raised on free range or pasture and are willing to pay more for the birds they say are more flavorful.XXX

XXXBOXXXXHow much is that turkey on the table?

Tomorrow, Americans will chow down on about 46 million turkeys, according to the American Farm Bureau (AFB).

This year's turkey will cost about 9 cents more per pound than last year's bird, AFB said. A 16-pound turkey will average $19.09 across the U. S., up $1.46 over last year's price. And turkey with all the trimmings? The AFB estimates a turkey dinner for the average gathering this year will cost $44.61.