This story was originally published on November 20, 2015.
When it comes to the Thanksgiving turkey, size matters. A 2o-pounder from the supermarket freezer is usually enough to secure some bragging rights for the cook. But for hobby farmer, Ken Chiacchia, a bird that size would hardly raise an eyebrow. He regularly raises heavyweights that get twice that size. But for him, what’s worth bragging about isn’t how big they get—it’s how they’re raised.
I sing you the song of “Turkmenistan”—a 43-pound monster of a Tom turkey we raised on our little farm.
“Stan”—as we called him for short—actually wasn’t the only scale-buster we’ve raised. For a number of years, the processor we take them to has commented on how large our birds are. Our secret isn’t actually a secret: We pasture them.
Now many of you will know what that means. But the official terminology is confusing, so let me get to that first. The byword in alternative food sourcing used to be “free range.” When you used that term, many people pictured what we do with our birds: In the morning I feed them some grain and open a pop door so that they can go outside and roam our 26 acres. In the evening, my wife Heather closes the door behind them. Come sundown, they’ve filed back into the coop on their own, ready for bed time.
LISTEN: Lessons Learned from Raising a Monster Turkey
The USDA, though, gives an amazingly short definition of “free range.” It reads: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” That’s it. It doesn’t specify how long or what surface the bird has access to. A few minutes on gravel will satisfy the requirement.
So we small-scale farmers fell back on “pastured,” to convey that the birds actually have meaningful access to grass, bugs and a generally natural environment. Chickens and turkeys are both omnivores, and enthusiastically hunt and forage all day when given the opportunity. In our case, in addition to mowed grass, our birds forage in the pastures where we keep our goats and sheep, as well as scrub brush and even some woods.
Adolescent turkeys are like little predatory dinosaurs—and they’re prodigious foragers. Heather noted early on that when we gave them the ability to hunt out their own food, we didn’t need to feed them as much grain. They actually prefer the wild stuff.
People have this idea that turkeys are stupid. But they’re only non-precocial, that is, they aren’t born with as many innate behaviors as chickens. Given a more natural environment, they’re inquisitive and enterprising.
In any case, pasturing has been good for our turkeys. And we believe it’s good for us too. You see all sorts of claims about the health benefits and taste improvements from pastured and other locally sourced meats. But for us, it’s as much about the animal’s quality of life. Turkmenistan got so large because he got to live like a real turkey, and that meant having some freedom to feed himself. We couldn’t even sell him because people wouldn’t believe he’d fit in the oven. But he did, and he was delicious.
Ken Chiacchia is a hobby farmer and commentator for the Allegheny Front. He lives with his wife, Heather Houlahan, and an assorted cloud of canine partners and fosters, barn cats, chickens, turkeys, ducks and goats on a 26-acre farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania.