Visiting an Organic Turkey Farm
By Heather Clisby on November 25, 2009
BlogHer Original Post
Thanksgiving is, without a doubt, the most meat-focused holiday in modern history. ("Happy Turkey Day!") In anticipation of this annual feast of gratitude, a friend and I visited the closest organic turkey farm we could find: Tedach Ranch, just 30 miles east of Denver in Bennett, Colorado. Gobble, gobble - it was an eye opener.
The ranch was born out of one man's steadfast refusal to accept the status quo of the poultry industry. Run by the diligent and soft-spoken poultry farmer (and full-time postal employee), Dallas Gilbert, the ranch includes chickens, ducks, geese and turkey, all raised free-range and certified humane.
"I didn't want to go vegetarian," said Gilbert, "but I couldn't stomach how the birds are raised. It's inhumane and unhealthy for us." So, in 1985, Gilbert began raising birds for market using the land he'd purchased in 1981.
I can certainly vouch for the free-range conditions. As we drove up the gravel road, we were met by a gaggle of geese and a flock of ducks, all wandering around to forage as they please. Though we were an hour early, Dallas got off his tractor and gave us a tour, generously answering all our questions and letting me photograph everything.
I'd explained to him via email that his would be my first farm visit in an ongoing effort to seek out local food sources. Inspired by so many (No Impact Man, Beth Terry, 100-Mile Diet, LoveLandLocal), it was high time I started putting my principles where my mouth is. Or something like that.
After about 10 minutes with the shy poultry farmer, it was easy to see that Gilbert genuinely loves the birds.( "Oh, yeah. The chickens will talk to you," he said with a grin, "Absolutely.") When I confessed that I'd developed a crush on his bossy rooster, he beamed with pride. And when he discussed the current state of the poultry industry, he was incensed.
"The industry basically raises chickens as diabetics," he said, matter-of-factly. "Imagine raising humans so that we end up with 8-year-olds who weigh 400 pounds." (Actually, I think we're already doing this ...)
Tedach Ranch is also home to Eastern Plains Natural Foods, a co-op which currently includes 65 people who pay $85 annually to access fresh, pasture-based poultry, eggs and turkey sausage throughout the year. Gilbert sells about 300 turkeys annually (8-25 pounds) and hauling them to the USDA-approved processing plant (also certified humane) in Kansas is quite the ordeal. Unfortunately, there isn't an adequate plant in Colorado as of yet.
For the most recent haul, he went to CU and recruited students for help. Gilbert's co-op also offers a Member Work Barter Program, where members can work on the farm in exchange for product, although there aren't many positions available. (The site says only one position is open for this season.
"All whole birds are this year's hatch and are never more than 7 months of age. The processed poultry are provided as whole, cleaned, frozen birds complete with giblets when appropriate or as portions in packages."
--Eastern Plains Natural Foods, membership page
Tedach Ranch is also a green operation, running on wind and solar as much as possible. Gilbert put up a windmill in October 2008 at an upfront cost of $15K. It runs on a two-kilo system and he sells the energy back to the grid but it currently covers about 1/3 of his overall electric bill.
When Gilbert began, he started with a generic turkey breed. Then, he'd read about how the Heritage breed was in need of preservation. Now, that's the only breed he raises and he does so with great pride.
"Prized for their rich flavor and beautiful plumage, Heritage Turkeys are the ancestors of the common Broad-breasted White industrial breed of turkey that comprises 99.99% of the supermarket turkeys sold today. But the Heritage Breeds still exist and are making a comeback….Large corporations have dominated turkey production and breeding since the 1960's, choosing the Broad Breasted Whites because of high breast meat production in a short period. But Heritage Breeds have been quietly gaining a renewed market and respect due to their flavor and superior biological diversity."
--Heritage Turkey Foundation
Gilbert also keeps a vigilant security team comprised of three mules - Thunder, Murphy and Lucky. Evidently, mules are the arch-enemies of the canine family - coyotes, dogs and wolves. The mules don't like 'em and the feeling is mutual. The trio serves as the ideal guards for the birds and Gilbert swears by their protective nature. "I even have photos of the turkeys sitting on their backs," he said.
Gilbert does his best to make sure all the birds eat organic feed, have access to clean water and can run around outside to their little birdie heart's content. I asked about the wooden perches in the chicken coop and turkey barn. "Both chickens and turkeys have terrible eyesight at night. They are essentially blind," he explained. "They feel much safer off the ground so they need somewhere to roost."
Gilbert emphasizes that all his birds are processed using the air-chilled method as opposed to the common water-chilled process. Apparently, water-chilled birds are immersed in a large vat of water full of salts, phosphates and other sanitizing chemicals to quickly bring down the temperature of the bird after processing and cleaning. As you can imagine, this makes a big difference in the outcome of the meat.
"So, when we say our birds are free-ranged and natural pasture-raised, we actually mean it, as opposed to industrial grade 'all natural' poultry that may look out an open door but rarely venture outside their buildings."
--Eastern Plains Natural Foods Co-Op site
Clearly, this farm is not a big money venture but more a labor of love. Gilbert is mighty proud to put humane meat products on the local market but his efforts to revive the Heritage breed also gives him great satisfaction. Gilbert has several bloodlines of Heritage turkeys on the ranch and carefully tracks all the birds. "I keep a database that follows each egg," he said.
"Heritage characteristics are consistently maintained from one generation to the next and from one processing to the next. Our birds consume less formulated feed than industrial breeds, and what they do consume is an entirely vegetarian feed ration specifically formulated for free range heritage breeds. The significant amount of green grasses, forbs, seeds and insects in their diets, as well as their daily exposure to sunshine and fresh air results in a bird with a flavorful and satisfying taste and pleasantly firm meat texture."
--Eastern Plains Natural Foods Co-Op site
After waving goodbye to a very earnest, hard-working man, we tried to digest all that we'd learned at Dallas Gilbert's farm. As mindful consumers, we can certainly make more humane choices with our food purchases. But that doesn't mean anything unless we actually have those local choices, which means folks like Dallas Gilbert have to get up at the egg-crack of dawn to make sure such options exist.
"Humane is very important ...and really hard work."
--Organic poultry farmer, Dallas Gilbert
What about you? Visited any local farms in your area? If so, do share.
Rebecca recounts one Thanksgiving that had to align with the '100-Mile-Diet' pledge. Their search also led them to Tedach Farms, and a few other cool farms as well:
"When the New Oxford American dictionary recently announced that its 2007 word of the year is locavore, it got me thinking about local Colorado foods. I decided to host a 'homegrown Colorado Thanksgiving', sourcing all (or at least the vast majority) of the menu from local producers."
Dana Angelo White weighs the economic pros and cons of buying an organic turkey over at Healthy Eats:
"My mom still tells the story about the year she ordered a free-range turkey. She almost choked when she went to pay for it because it was more than six times what a regular turkey cost! Now that I have Thanksgiving at my house, I’m faced with the same dilemma — is it worth it to get these extra pricey birds?"
For author Nicollete Hahn Niman (blogging on Huffington Post), her work as a lawyer for Robert Kennedy, Jr., turned her into a "food detective." Although she had already become a vegetarian, her consumption of eggs and dairy meant she was still contributing to the corporate food industry. Ultimately, it came down to one golden rule:
"Although the task was daunting, my goal was simple: I wanted all my food to come from places I would enjoy visiting."
This is my new food rule going forward.
(All images taken by Heather Clisby. Check out more photos from our turkey jaunt here.)
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