In the summer of 2008, I took a temporary research position at NASA Goddard. I learned a lot about myself that summer. I fell in love with Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, and decided that one day, I will move back there. I also learned that my lifetime goal of becoming a NASA researcher needed to die. My passion was in teaching, not researching, and I’m glad I was a temporary employee rather than a permanent one…because I needed to get the hell out of there. While working at Goddard, I lived with another graduate student who happened to be a vegetarian. I had just finished reading the book “Skinny Bitch” by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, and was totally grossed out by our food system. I agreed with everything I read in that book, and didn’t want to be a hypocrite anymore, so I made a decision to go vegan. It was really easy to be vegan that summer. Baltimore had a ton of fresh produce readily available in grocery stores and farmers markets. It also had a vegan café and a Whole Foods that was a short bus ride away from my apartment, and D.C. even had a vegan bakery that enveloped my sweet tooth. I even took advantage of the cooking and eating styles of my apartment mate as she prepared her vegetarian dishes. I’m thankful that I attempted this experiment because that’s when I found out how allergic to dairy I was. I always knew I had a lactose intolerance (every female on my mother’s side has a bit of intolerance, if not a severe one), but I never knew how badly it effected my whole body until I completely gave it up. After about two weeks of my new diet, I lost my constant nausea, bloating, heartburn, and yep, you guessed it, finish that Pepto-Bismol commercial. Up until that point in my life, I assumed everyone felt the way I did. I assumed it was “normal”. Not that I ever was a huge proponent of dairy…as I kid I hated mac and cheese, and I never drank my milk. Cheeseburger? Um…no. Ice cream? No thanks, I’d rather have that sorbet covered in sprinkles or a popsicle.
I attempted to remain vegan when I returned home from my Baltimore trip, but being a vegan in Wyoming is pretty difficult. Where as Baltimore was all fruits, veggies, and joy, Wyoming was beef, potatoes, and depression. I remained vegan for two years after the fact, but eventually moved back to an ocean state and started adding seafood into my diet. After about a year of living in Maine, I came across a pamphlet that listed all of the local farms and what they sold. One of the farms had a butcher market attached to it, and they sold cuts of their grass-fed, organic, happy cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, and turkeys. I thought about adding meat back into my diet, but I wanted to do it the right way. Supporting factory farms was completely out of the question, but supporting a local farm who loves their animals and treats them with well? Yeah, that I would support. So Sarah and I made the half an hour trek upstate to this new butcher. We met Leon, who assured us that we were not the first vegetarians to come and check out his shop. In fact, they had a t-shirt with a slogan that read, “meat so good, even a vegetarian will love it!” It was true…we loved it, and we’ve been going there ever since.
The first few years afterward we ordered our Thanksgiving turkey from Leon and the crew. The turkeys were allowed to roam and scratch, they were fed organic grains instead of corn, and were antibiotic and chemical free. In order to keep the farmer in business, he also needed to make a living wage. This, as you may have guessed, caused the turkey to be more expensive than the $10 Butterball. Each year, we spent between $70-$90 on a turkey for Thanksgiving. This past year, I thought I could do it better and cheaper. Read on to see if I could…
As you may have read in my past post “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner“, I also raised 15 meat chickens this last summer. Chickens and turkeys are raised in different time frames, and eat different food, so it’s best that you don’t keep them together. I picked up the chickens in May, and kept them in the woodshed under a heat lamp for 4 weeks. After they all had their full feathers, they were allowed to go outside in their pen (see “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner for pen plan” designs). After the chickens moved outside, the woodshed chick-area would be clear for the turkeys. I picked up two turkey chicks in June.
I read that the survival rate for turkey chicks (also called poults), is pretty low. I decided on two thinking that if our odds were 50% or less, I would only loose one. If I was lucky, I would have two turkeys at the end of the season, one for Thanksgiving, and one to split up and cook throughout the year.
Turkey poults are very different from chicken chicks. Turkeys are a very social creature, and often bonds to a creature very quickly. Fortunately (and unfortunately), the poults bonded to me. They were little feather-fuzz balls that would call to me, wait for my reply and call back. When they were spooked, they would run to me, jump in my lap, and cuddle into my shirt. Like a puppy would, these poults would fall asleep in my arms. This, of course, was freakin’ adorable when I went down to the woodshed to play with them…but was terribly annoying when it was time for me to go back into the house. These small poults were so loud, that I could hear them calling for me – through the night – from inside my house. And the windows were closed!! As a new poult mother, this of course broke my heart so I filled one of my dirty socks with some stuffing and placed it in their area. Whether it worked, or whether they just grew up and got used to it, the calling reduced until they would only call when I was near.
After a few days, Sarah and I realized that one of the turkey poults wasn’t standing. Everytime it would try to walk, it would trip itself and fall. We tried giving him extra traction by laying down some paper towels on top of the pine shavings, but it only helped minimally. We discovered that it wasn’t his clumsiness, it was his left leg. For some reason, he could not move it as well as the right leg. After much internet research, we determined that he had a slipped tendon. That is, when the tendon has slipped out of the knee notch, leaving the turkey to not be able to bend its leg. The remedy for this, is to pull the leg straight, and use your thumb to push and slide the tendon back into place (similar to trying to push a knot out of someone’s back muscle). Sometimes, this is just a one time issue, but if the poult’s knee wasn’t formed correctly, you would have to continue doing this until the knee grows to keep the tendon. We couldn’t keep the tendon in place. We’d slip it into the knee notch, but as soon as the leg bent, it would pop right back out.
Sarah, a wiz at physical therapies (and a budding Kineiso tape practitioner), taped the tendon into place, and made a splint for the leg so it wouldn’t bend and pull the tendon out again. I made a chick chair, (similar to this one) to keep the poult from putting weight on his leg. We tried this for three days, but the poult wanted out and beat his wings bloody to do so. After removing the splint and tape, we realized it had done nothing to help the tendon and they poult wasn’t doing so well. The poult was a week old now, and wouldn’t stand. He would crawl to eat and drink, but couldn’t move away from his excrement. Sadly, I decided to cull him before he got much older.
*Skip this next paragraph if you get queasy*
Sarah and I are complete opposites, which make situations like this easier. Sarah works quickly and efficiently if a human has been injured while I fall to pieces. When an animal is hurt, Sarah is a mess and I have the calm, collected head. It is the responsibility of a farmer, to not be afraid to put a suffering animal down. Also, know that the easiest way for the animal, is never the easiest way for you. I read a lot of message boards about people who have to cull a chick, but are afraid to do it themselves, so they let a bucket of water or a freezer do the job for them. This is NOT okay, and the animal suffers more prior to death than it probably did in life. It may be difficult to do, but the best way is to slice the throat with a sharp knife or cut off the head completely and quickly. The first time I had to cull a bird, I used an axe which was not sharp enough, so I had to make two passes. It was devastating. This time, I got the sharpest knife I had. Unfortunately for Sarah, I needed her help holding the poult, as we do not have a killing cone. We apologized to the poult, and as Sarah was distracted while reassuring him that he’d be better off this way, I did one quick slice and it was over. While I thought that would be easier for Sarah, I was quickly mistaken. She has taken her eyes away for a split second, and then realized she was talking to a headless turkey. She screamed, and started balling hysterically. Strangely enough, she didn’t drop the bird. She just kept holding it like her hands were locked in place. I tried taking it from her, but she just flailed, squeezing harder. Finally, I grabbed her and screamed “drop the bird!” She did, and then ran away screaming and sobbing. I caught up to her and gave her a hug, apologizing for not warning her. “::Sniffle:: That’s okay, I’m glad it was quick. It needed to happen.” …If this needs to be done again, I think I may need to find someone else to help me.
*Okay, the weak stomached folk can drop back into the conversation now*
So, now we were down to one turkey. After having a week to bond with his brother, the poult was now lonely – constantly calling for the other poult. He would eventually settle down, but it was very hard to listen too.
Although I promised myself that I would never name my poultry, this poult, very puppy-like in nature received a human name: Gus. Gus was super loving and happy. I would often spend an hour or more a day playing with him in the yard. He would follow me around like a duckling would follow it’s mother. He would always keep me in sight, and would race after me if he realized he had traveled too far. His favorite thing to do was to find an ants nest in the grass, pull it apart, and eat all of the ants that rush out of it – one by one. After devastating the colony, he’d do what any other poult would do…sit on it. Without minding the expression, Gus was a real ham.
After about a month, he had finally grown a set of feathers and it was time to move him outside. At this point, it was July and the meat chickens had already been butchered and were in my chest freezer. I cleaned up the chicken pen, and moved Gus in. I wanted to give Gus a bit of company, so I put his pen next to the laying hen’s coop. He was happy to have friends.
But he was always happy to see me when I came by to give him treats.
For the next few months, Gus continued to grow. Unfortunately for me, as he grew in weight, he also grew in aggression. By September, Gus was a real jerk. His new hobby was chasing me out of his cage with his claws, beak, and huge flapping wings. It made feeding him very difficult. After a while, I stopped referring to him as Gus, and started just calling him “that ****-ing bird”.
The butcher that we usually take our poultry to was closing their poultry house down by October. Because I got Gus one month late, I wanted him to continue growing through November. I was given a recommendation of a second butcher, and quickly made an appointment for 8am, the Monday before Thanksgiving.
The butcher we took him to was a turkey farm that was near the Canadian Border. I kept joking that we were taking Gus to “a farm upstate”, which wasn’t untruthful. Unlike the chickens who traveled to the butcher in cardboard boxes, Gus needed something more resilient. We borrowed a plastic dog crate from a friend that would hold a dog the size of a beagle – Gus barely fit.
I drove up to the farm by myself because Sarah couldn’t get off of work. Upstate Maine reminded me of Wyoming (except with trees). The further I drove, the longer I went without seeing houses. I thought it was suspect when I looked at the address for the turkey farm and butcher shop. It was located on the main drag of the town – on Main street. It wasn’t until I got there did it all make sense. My GPS told me to take a left onto Main street. I almost missed the turn, it looked like someone’s driveway. Here, let me show you… This is a picture of Main Street:
Driving 20 miles an hour down Main street, I passed a small building that served as the town’s fire/police/town office/community center, a few houses that looked forgotten, and two farms. I had to slowly lead my car around two large fallen trees that looked like they had fallen months ago…there was just no need to move them. I arrived at the farm, only to be greeted by the rising sun and the dead fox hanging from their mailbox – an obvious deterrent to beast who dares to steal a chicken or turkey. I leave Gus in the car, and enter the butcher shop. There are two signs up on the wall, one has a picture of a donkey humping the USA, the other said in a longer, more eloquent way, “if you even mention Obama, I will drop you right here and now”. I just stood there, quietly waiting my turn while the owner kept talking about how hard it is to sell turkeys in Obama’s economy. I didn’t realize Obama had it out for poultry growers…
After checking in with the highly politcal owner, I went out to go get Gus from the car. I had a couple of comments yelled my way about bringing a turkey all the way up here in “that Prius”. These farmers just could not believe the amount of stuff our Prius could haul (Thanks Toyota, I’ll take my endorsement deal now). I dragged Gus and the dog crate over to the butcher line and set him down on the ground. I wasn’t exactly paying attention to the orientation of the dog crate until Gus started getting restless. Poor guy…his only window was facing inside the door to the start of the butcher line. I listened to one more Obama rant while the worker’s attempted to yank Gus out of the cage, they pulled him up by the legs, and my time with him was over.
It wasn’t all uncomfortable though. While waiting my turn, I met a man who brought in seven turkeys that his son had raised as a learning experience. He homeschooled his boy because “you learn responsibility by being responsible, and they don’t teach that in school anymore”. He said the first batch of poults he bought for his son all died because his son accidently fed them chicken food. It taught his son to focus and be observant, because in real life there are consequences for not paying attention. I asked what he was going to do with their seven turkeys, and he said that he runs an adventure lodge that brings veterans out to hunt, fish, camp, and hike for free. He was donating all of their turkey’s to veterans who needed the help, because his son also needed to learn about charity. The woman behind me in line was an organic inspector. She travelled the state going to all of the farms, processing hubs, and coffee roasters (woo!) giving them organic certification. In her spare time, she raises heirloom seed and seedlings to sell to people.
It was finally time to pick up my turkey. Just for fun, I weighed him on their scale before leaving to find out how big he was. The finished weight was 26.53 pounds! Turkey’s loose about 30% of their weight after butchering, so Gus was about 35 pounds when I brought him in.
Sarah was the Turkey chef this Thanksgiving, and cooked Gus for 8 hours – just to bring him up to temperature. He was delicious. This was the first turkey I had that wasn’t frozen before cooking, and it made a huge difference. We also believe that he was tasty because he grew with love (and a little bit of Nikki flesh).
After all was said and done, we spent $5.99 on each turkey poult, we bought three 50 pound bags of organic food at $27 each, and it cost $18 dollars for the butchering. Gus cost us $105 to raise. That sized bird bought at our local butcher shop would have come out to the same thing. Next year, we may forgo the turkey raising and just buy from our butcher again. But this makes me think… If you raised your own chicks from eggs, you would not have the cost of the chick. If you bought feed in bulk, you will probably get a reduced price per bag, and if you didn’t go organic, you could potentially get feed for $10 for 50 pounds. You could also butcher the bird yourself and save some money there… But, even so, it would still cost the farmer about $30 per bird – just to raise. Then how would a farmer make a profit? Or let alone, a living wage? Why then, can you sell a turkey for $10-$20 at the grocery store? You have to wonder what else is going into their process…