Raising a Better Turkey for Thanksgiving

November 10, 2017

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans eat about 46 million turkeys for Thanksgiving each year, the majority of which are conventionally raised Broad Breasted Whites. But for eaters who want to support local family farms, humane animal welfare, and environmentally sound agriculture, there are better and more flavorful alternatives at your local farmers market.

“We have a relationship with our birds,” says farmer Norman Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown, who can be found at the Ferry Plaza Famers Market on Saturdays. “For our family, this is the only way to do it. We are truly dedicated to supporting sustainable and certified organic farming.”

Breaking from Convention

While conventional supermarket turkeys cost around $1.50 per pound, humanely raised heritage turkeys can fetch more than $10 per pound, a considerable price difference that raises eyebrows for many shoppers. Such birds may command a higher price, but it’s not just a fancy pedigree you’re paying for.

The conventional Broad-Breasted White turkey has been bred for a heavy breast and rapid growth. As a result, they experience myriad health and mobility issues as they mature, including the inability to fly and, in some cases, walk. They cannot mate naturally, so breeders must use artificial insemination for reproduction. In short, if left to nature, the modern turkey would not survive.

The typical Thanksgiving turkey is raised in a high-density confinement facility, in which it endures overcrowding, poor sanitation, and lack of access to outdoor space. The waste from these industrial operations places a heavy environmental toll on the surrounding landscape. But a growing number of ranchers are raising birds in a more humane and sustainable way.

Call of the Wild

Norman Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown in Calaveras County began raising turkeys at age 15, when his family moved to Mountain Ranch to take over a turkey farm. They raised thousands of turkeys free-range, but, because they were in a contract with a large corporation, they did not control which breeds of birds they raised.

In more recent years, Norman and his wife, Aimee, have bred small flocks of heritage-breed turkeys, such as Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, and Narragansett, which they have offered on and off at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market around Thanksgiving.

For the last 10 years, the birds have coexisted with wild turkeys that occasionally visit the ranch. While the two groups of birds originally kept their distance, over time the heritage and wild turkeys began to get friendlier. Eventually, the Gunsells found their domesticated turkeys leaving the farm to join the wild flocks, which created challenges for bringing them to market.

“We thought, ‘How can we straddle both worlds, and have our turkeys forage on the farm and actually domesticate them?” says Norman. Over time, the toms bred with the hens to introduce wild genes into the breeding stock. Norman estimates that the current flock is 75% wild and 25% heritage turkey. More like wild turkeys, the birds are smaller than domestic birds, weighing between 7 and 12 pounds.

The True Cost of a Turkey

There are additional expenditures associated with raising such turkeys outside the conventional box. Since heritage and wild breeds grow more slowly than Broad Breasted Whites, they can take twice as long to reach full size, doubling the costs of labor and feed.

The Gunsells pride themselves in the individual care and attention they give to each of their birds, and they pay a premium for certified organic, GMO-free feed. Their birds are also raised with plenty of room to roam. “We don’t have massive amounts of manure and water running off into rivers and creeks, like large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) do, creating a disaster for our environment and workers,” says Gunsell.

While health, animal welfare, and conservation are factors for choosing humanely raised heritage birds, for many eaters the ultimate motivator is taste. When cooked, the Mountain Ranch’s wild-heritage birds have a richer taste, which requires a longer, slower cooking time. “You’re getting a more flavorful bird that’s more like wild meat,” says Norman. “And they’re juicy and delicious as can be.”

Buying Your Locally Raised Heritage Turkey

The Gunsell family of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown is offering a limited number of certified organic turkeys for purchase and pickup at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. They also will have “jumbo” Cornish Cross chickens up to 11 pounds, and guinea fowl, which are closely related to turkeys and share a similar flavor. You can reserve your for pickup at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market by visiting the Gunsells’ stand on Saturdays, calling 209-754-5253 (between 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.), or emailing .

You can can also reserve a pasture-raised, heritage breed (organically fed, non-GMO) turkey from farmer Dede Boies of Root Down Farm (pictured below). Though not sold at the farmers market, you can pre-order your turkey at store.rootdownfarm.org and place a deposit on your size range, then take a trip to the farm in Pescadero on November 18 or 19 to pick up your bird with other fresh-from-the-farm fixings.

See CUESA’s Farmers Market Thanksgiving Guide for more holiday market specials, tips, and recipes.

Visit Mountain Ranch Organically Grown and Root Down Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Mountain Ranch Organically Grown will also be at our Special Wednesday Thanksgiving Market on November 22.

Mountain Ranch Orgnically Grown turkey photos by Mountain Ranch Organically Grown. Root Down Farm photo by Federica Armstrong.

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