by Marnie Record
What better way to give thanks than at a table surrounded by loved ones centered around a turkey that roamed the soil in the sunshine eating insects and healthy grains, raised by a farmer who cared for the life of the turkey and the land in addition to making a living?
On Garden Gate Farm, owner Doug Rinkenberger raises broad breasted white turkeys, the most widely available breed of commercial turkey. Nothing about his turkeys are common, however. Raised on pasture, not in confinement, Doug’s turkeys maintain their health through adequate space in their natural environment rather than regularly prescribed medications. When the pasture dies back for the winter, Doug feeds radish tops and other byproduct greens harvested from his farm to the turkeys. “The turkeys love anything green,” he says. Additionally, the turkeys are fed a non-GMO diet of feed that Doug raises and grinds himself (a practice that came as a result of consumer request, demonstrating the power each of us has in creating the world we want).
With a slim margin for profit in a business labored by hand at the mercy of nature, Doug’s turkeys are protected not only by a double fence, but also by a territorial donkey. When compared to royalty residing in the inner sanctum of a castle Doug replies, “Our turkeys have a good life.”
Another area farmer, Sonja Solomonson of Rustic Red Poultry and Produce, raises pastured Beltsville small white turkeys on non-GMO feed along with the occasional hard-boiled egg, pumpkin seeds, and even some heirloom tomatoes since the birds can fly just about anywhere they please. Flying is a rare trait among domesticated turkeys as most birds have been bred to be breast heavy, keeping them grounded. Flying allows the turkey to roost off the ground, their natural tendency to stay safe from predators.
The Beltsville small white turkeys are the only turkey on the critical list designated by The Livestock Conservancy – a classification given to breeds with an estimated global population of less than 2,000, and that met several breeding criteria, primarily being of genetic interest.
According to The Livestock Conservancy, a 1936 survey found that 87 percent of home consumers wanted a New York-dressed bird (blood and feathers removed) weighing between eight and 15 pounds. They also wanted a bird that was meaty, well-finished and free from dark pin feathers. Thus, five years later the Beltsville small white came to be. By the 1970s it lost popularity to the broad breasted white turkeys who could grow larger for the commercial food trade or be slaughtered young to meet family needs.
Sonja is raising the Beltsville small white turkeys for the second year. They take six months to reach full maturity contributing to a more developed flavor and a more balanced bird. At full size the male turkeys dress out to 11-13 pounds. Sonja was drawn to the Beltsville small white turkeys for their more natural tendencies including ability to breed and forage, both contributing to easier (but far from easy) management.
Listening to Sonja speak about the turkeys, you hear her “passion for poultry” come through in her knowledge about their history and biology, but also how they tick on her farm. “I love to watch their behavior. They are fun and silly, not stupid like some people think,” Sonja says. She believes in keeping the heritage breeds going.
The reward of all the extra effort made by farmers like Doug and Sonja for the eater includes a more nutritious and full-flavored bird, and the peace of mind in knowing how the turkey was raised. In the case of the Beltsville small white turkeys, additional benefit comes from preserving genetic diversity. We all know what happened to Ireland when the potato crop failed, but in the U.S. we have also seen cases of price spikes due to fast spreading diseases of animals in highly confined spaces. While turkeys purchased from the grocery store often contain an injection of water, sodium and artificial flavorings, a processed turkey from Doug or Sonja is all turkey.
Both farmers encourage people to come to their farm to see the difference for themselves. Customers appreciate this offer and some come out.
“Even town kids raised in a rural community don’t know that food is grown in the ground on a farm,” Doug explains. He tells the story of one child who started a tour eating a bell pepper exclaiming how much he liked it and wanting his mom to get more at the grocery store, his only connection to where food comes from. Doug goes on to say, “Bringing people to the farm helps people see what farming is all about. People don’t know the work that goes into it. There are more opportunities on a piece of land than people realize. Everyone ought to know they can put a seed in the ground and grow their own food, even people with a patio who live in the city.”
At double or triple the cost of grocery store turkeys, some consumers are not able to pay the higher price tags of pasture-raised, small-farm animals, an unfortunate reality of our current food system. But many of us can spend less elsewhere for a turkey where everyone wins. Sonja quotes a phrase she has learned through The Livestock Conservancy, “Eat less meat of better quality.”
Since pasture raised turkeys walk around the farm, they are leaner than their confined counterparts and cook faster, a benefit to the time-crunched cooks.
Doug will be selling turkeys at the Springfield Holiday Farmers Market on Nov. 18 at the Expo building on the State Fairgrounds. Customers can pre-order a specific size or take their chances on market day. Sonja’s turkeys are available by contacting her by phone, text or email. The Illinois Stewardship Alliance developed a list of local farms that have sustainably raised turkeys: