Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thanksgiving turkey

Several people have asked for my advice on what kind of turkey to get for Thanksgiving. Farms vary in the kinds of turkeys they raise, and the conditions under which they raise them. I called around to some local markets to determine what they were selling and at what prices. You can do the same in your area.

My preference is for a heritage variety turkey. That’s the cause I took on when I got involved with traditional breeds. However, I’m persuaded that many small turkey producers are doing a good job with Broad Breasted White turkeys, the dominant commercial breed. Humane treatment of the birds during their lives matters to me.

Check Web sites and talk to local meat market employees to find out what is available in your area. Consider what kinds of businesses you are supporting with your purchase.

Some terms

The claim of ‘No Hormones’ is somewhat specious, since giving hormones to any kind of poultry is against federal law. It’s not actually a competitive claim, since none of them are given hormones.

‘Organic’ is a legally defined term that requires products to meet standards set by the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, It includes the farm’s practices as well as what is fed to the birds.

Turkeys are not vegetarians – on pasture, they love tasty grasshoppers and worms – although some sites make claims about vegetarian diet.

‘Free range’ or ‘free roaming’ means that the birds ‘have access’ to the outdoors, but what that involves varies widely. A small door to a concrete pad doesn’t mean what the consumer may envision, birds happily scratching their way across a grassy field.

‘Natural’ suffers from a similar lack of clarity. As Consumers Union reported in 2000,, its legal marketing definition is so loose as to include all meat products.

‘Heritage’ means, to me, a variety established by small flock methods that can mate naturally. In my mind, that excludes the Broad-Breasted Bronze, which was developed as a commercial bird in the mid-20th century. Heritage varieties – Bronze, such as this hen of Mike Walters', Black, Bourbon Red, Buff, Midget White, Narragansett, Royal Palm and Slate -- have received attention as deserving to be saved by Slow Food USA on its Ark of Taste,

The usual supermarket turkey is a Broad-Breasted White, a commercial breed that became dominant in the mid-20th century. Its breast, which produces the white meat so popular, is so large that the male is physically unable to mount the female and mate naturally. All Broad Breasted turkeys are produced via artificial insemination.

Local contacts

I began close to home in Cambria, at Soto’s Market, 927-4411. They are offering Diestel all natural, free-range turkeys, out of Selma, CA. Diestel Turkey Ranch,, offers a full line of turkeys, from the standard Broad Breasted White to heritage varieties, although the site doesn’t give specifics. A flyer from the meat counter offered Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys as Heirloom birds, a variety I would not include in that category. The photos look like Bronze and Bourbon Red. They offer a Petite Young turkey said to be mature and dressing out at 6-10 lbs. Can it be a Midget White? $2.99/lb. The smallest turkeys are typically10-12 lbs. Soto’s gets hens only, up to 26 lbs.

Heading south to Morro Bay, Spencer’s Fresh Markets, 772-8103, sells Mary’s Farms,, Foster Farms and Norbest turkeys. Mary’s turkeys are free range and organic, $1.99/lb. Foster Farms, California,, BB White turkey, $1.39. Norbest is a marketing cooperative,, selling BB White turkeys from farms in Utah and Nebraska, $1.59/lb.

Moving on south to San Luis Obispo, New Frontiers, Foothill Blvd., 785-0194,
offers Diestel and Mary’s turkeys. Heidi’s Hens is Diestel’s certified organic line. Mary’s all free range, The Diestel’s start at $1.99/lb. Mary’s organic turkeys are $3.79/lb.

Mary’s Free Range Heritage turkeys are raised in Fresno, California. Mary raises Narragansetts, such as this handsom tom belonging to Robert Gibson of Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire,, Bourbon Reds, Royal Palms, White Hollands and Standard Bronze. They don’t label according to variety. Sizes vary. Mary actually gets her heritage variety turkey poults (chicks) from Frank Reese in Kansas,

Trader Joe’s, the popular niche supermarket,, has two kinds of turkeys under its own label: Fresh, Young Brined All Natural Turkeys ($1.79/lb., 12-22 lbs.) and Glatt Kosher All Natural Turkeys ($2.29/lb., 12-16 lbs.). The company says that they are raised in the USA and are antibiotic-free, not free-range. Beyond that, the employee I talked to at the local San Luis Obispo store searched around but determined that the company considers all additional information proprietary and declines any further comment.

Trader Joe’s is known for its high quality products, but I’m uncomfortable with any business that doesn’t permit customers to learn more about what they are buying. From what I’ve heard about brining, it’s intended to bring flavor to a bird that otherwise doesn’t have much. Kosher rules are strict and I’m certain that Trader Joe’s has observed them with the kosher turkey, so perhaps that’s a more flavorful product.

Nature’s Touch Nursery and Harvest in Templeton, 434-3062, has Branigan’s organic, free range turkeys from Woodland, California, All sizes sell for $4.50 per pound. Deadline to order holiday turkeys is November 11.

Grande Foods Market in Arroyo Grande , 489-1584 and Paso Robles Health Food, 238-3987
Linda told me their turkeys are Broad Breasted Whites from Harmony Farms in Simi Valley, which I was unable to find listed on the Internet. Perhaps they have no need of a Web site – Linda says the markets have sold nothing but Harmony Farms turkeys for years and they are excellent. The birds arrive on the Monday before Thanksgiving, flash frozen. They are sold by size, $2.89/lb for 10-19 lb. birds, $2.79/lb. for birds over 20 lbs. They are available for pickup on Tuesday. The birds are not organic but they are carefully raised and customers love them. Sounds like a good buy at the price.

Isla Vista Food Co-op, 6575 Seville Rd., 968-1401,, is offering a Buy One, they’ll Donate One organic turkey to the Santa Barbara Food Bank. A nice offer. Shelton’s Turkeys are broad-breasted whites.

Local Harvest,, lists a variety of heritage turkey suppliers. Unfortunately, the closest one is in San Bernardino. The others range as far as Wisconsin and Virginia, and the prices are very high, over $100 plus shipping.

I’m encouraged to see diversity and competition in the turkey market. Read what the producers tell about their operations online. Look at the photos of how their turkeys live. Check around your area and see what you come up with. Personally, I ordered one of Mary’s heritage birds from New Frontiers, $5.79/lb. I’m voting with my wallet.


Christina said...

According to their newsletter, the Natural Foods Co-Op in SLO is selling Shelton's Organic Turkeys for $4.15/lb. They don't have room to store them so you need to pick up within 3 days of delivery to the co-op.

PoultryBookstore said...

Thanks! Additional information about suppliers is welcome.