Talking (Free Range) Turkey in Northern Virginia

10/2/2010 2:00 PM
By Shannon Sollinger

Virginia Correspondent

UPPERVILLE, Va. — Ten years ago, finding a pasture-raised turkey for the Thanksgiving table was a challenge.

Not any more. In Northern Virginia alone, more than a dozen farmers and avian entrepreneurs are offering turkeys that foraged on grass, nuts and bugs. Several offer heritage breed turkeys and many are raising the broad-breasted white — the supermarket turkey but, according to its supporters, immeasurably tastier when it grows up outdoors eating real food.

I’m here because I really like food, said Jane Macidull, munching on a sample of a heritage breed turkey at the annual Ayrshire Farm Tasting Turkey: An Historical & Culinary Event in Upperville, Va. Sept. 13.

Chefs, restaurant owners, farmers and foodies flock every September to the Ayrshire event to participate in a blind tasting of eight heritage breed turkeys — all raised at Ayrshire, all prepared the same way. They rank each sample for taste, texture and appearance.

The winner for 2010, with the most first- and second-place votes, was the Narragansett, which traces its DNA back to the native wild turkeys of Rhode Island in the 17th century.

In a surprise to free-range aficionados, the commercial turkey, picked up at the local supermarket, placed second in the voting. That’s probably because its taste is so familiar to American diners, sniffed a critic.

In third place was the black, or Spanish turkey, whose ancestors hailed from England and Spain, and which crossed with wild North American birds in Colonial America.

The Standard Bronze, Chocolate, White Holland (precursor of the white hybrid turkey that dominates the commercial market today), Royal Palm, Slate and Bourbon Red completed the menu.

Heritage breeds take up to 28 weeks (nearly twice as long as the 16 weeks for a commercial turkey) to mature to market weight. They are also, in the words of the farm’s retail manager, Jeff Keffer, the only humane and organic certified turkeys on the face of the planet.

That combination adds up to a bigger price tag. The Ayrshire turkeys cost about $10 a pound.

The supermarket turkey may be cheaper, Keffer said, but it has been bred for fast growth, an abundance of breast meat and uniformity. Other traits, like flavor, have fallen by the wayside, Keffer said.

Ayrshire shipped fresh turkeys to 40 states last year, and expects to get all 3,000 birds in its flock onto someone’s plate or into a freezer by Christmas.

At Fields of Athenry, Elaine Boland’s farm not far away in Middleburg, nearly 300 Broad-Breasted Bronze, Bourbon Red and Broad-Breasted White turkeys will be ready for the Thanksgiving dinner table. Boland started nine years ago with 30 turkeys (only about 20 made it to market) and has hit on her own version of free range. Native grasses and weeds flourish in the turkey pastures, and under their cover, hens have started to lay eggs and raise young the old-fashioned way. The poults dive into the underbrush at even a hint of a shadow in the sky, and a fox would be hard pressed to squeeze through the woody, overgrown bushes.

Almost 30 percent of Boland’s inventory this year was born on the farm, and she is choosing the smartest (a relative term when discussing turkeys) most mothering ones to carry on for another generation. It’s been a fun hobby for me, to see how many moms we can get to naturally come back, to see how many years it will take to get the natural instincts back in the mother turkey, Boland said.

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