You may not recognize a turkey at six weeks of age. They’re sprightly and surprisingly lean — a cross between a rooster and a roadrunner. They’ve got none of the fancy feather fanfare you might recall from grade-school images of the festive bird, and the wattle — that little red scarf males wear on their faces — is only starting to show. Unless you’re familiar with the character traits of teenage turkeys, which until recently I was not, you may also be surprised to learn they’ve got as much curiosity as a precocious toddler. My first encounter with one at a family farm in Rockwood, Ont., was an awkward mix of rolling gobbles (turkey noises actually sound a bit like a bag of marbles) and a bizarre fascination with the taste of my beat-up running shoes.
If you’re a conscious eater looking to make your Thanksgiving meal as kind to the Earth as possible, you may be most surprised to learn that certified organic turkey is about as hard to find in some parts of Canada as a golden goose. In Ontario, there are only 10 turkey farmers registered with ProCerta, a national certification organization. Under Quebec’s provincial certification, there are five; in the Atlantic provinces, two; and in Manitoba, there are none (the last organic turkey farmer gave up his certification seven years ago). While this doesn’t make an ethical turkey dinner impos-sible, it will likely mean a trip beyond your supermarket’s butcher aisle.
My visit to Marcia and John Stevers’s Blue Haven Farm was part of that trip. The turkeys they produce aren’t certified by an organic board of any kind, but in most ways they fit the bill. As Marcia shows me around the 10-acre farm, pointing out the differences between the standard white turkeys she keeps and her prize heritage breeds, she cites turkey personality traits to explain why she chooses to raise hers outdoors. “Turkeys don’t like anything clinging to their feet,” she says, and this becomes a problem in enclosed barns where the birds are forced to step in their own manure. Outside, “you don’t have to buy bedding straw, and they spread the manure around the field where it’s needed.”
What Stevers describes is a kind of cyclical biosystem. The pasture on which the six-week-old flock is now living was first grazed by her goats, who ate the tallest and driest of the grasses. The turkeys will eat the clover and bugs, and their droppings will feed the grass for the next herd of goats. The flock is pasture-raised, which means the birds spend most of their lives outdoors and aren’t fed antibiotics of any kind. The resulting advantages to raising her animals in this way are ones you’ve likely heard before: rosier-coloured meat, firmer flesh and a difference in taste that Stevers compares to the differences with grass-fed beef.
Blue Haven’s turkeys aren’t officially organic because of the feed the farm uses. Though the young flock’s supplementary diet sounds wholesome enough (cracked corn, soy, mixed greens, kelp and flax), the food is not organic, which is a requirement under most certification boards.
Complicated quota regulations also prevent many organic farmers from taking on turkeys. In Ontario, for example, farmers are allowed to start a flock of up to 50 turkeys without holding a quota, but turkey quotas are only granted to farmers raising 1,000 birds or more. This discrepancy produces either very small or very large operations, as each turkey numbering between 51 and 999 results in fines that most niche farmers can’t afford.
Stevers’s life in the turkey business goes back to a 1950s childhood, when she worked on her father’s farm on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island. In its heyday, Burt’s Country Farm housed flocks of 13,000 turkeys at a time — numbers closer to a factory farm operation, but different in some respects.
“Back then, the feed was local. We’d grow our own feed and corn,” Stevers says, a common practice among farms at the time. Standard bronze turkeys, the kind you see in cartoons and picture books, were the family’s breed of choice. Soon, health-obsessed buyers started clamouring for the whitest meat possible, which meant white-feathered birds. The broad-breasted white turkeys Stevers now raises account for most of the turkey market in North America.
Whether one has a “backyard flock” (as farms of up to 50 turkeys are called by the Turkey Farmers of Canada) or a large-scale operation of 35,000 birds or more, being a turkey farmer means entrusting your livelihood to an industry that is both extremely seasonal and relatively modest. Of the 10.2 million whole turkeys produced and consumed by Canadian households in 2010, 76 percent were purchased for either Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“There’s no other time of year [the meat] does that well,” says Matthew Dick, one of only two turkey farmers in the province registered under the Organic Council of Ontario. Additionally, though Canada’s population has grown by over 10 million since 1980, the number of registered turkey farmers in the country has dropped in that time — from 603 to 548.
Jodi Koberinski, executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario, says that a mix of demand and supply-chain issues prevent this already-small sector of the meat market from growing, despite a recent spike in interest for organic foods. “You’ll find that across the board in meat, we don’t have the same kind of demand. In dairy and eggs, we have really good demand for organic, anywhere from three to five percent of the market, but for other meats, it tends to be behind.” The other obstacle, she continues, is that “we have supply-managed meat sectors. Getting commercially available, certified organic meat to consumers is restricted by production access.”
So what are your options when it comes to festive dinners? To start, it might help to rethink the seasonal hang-ups about eating the bird. “Not finding an organic turkey shouldn’t stop you from doing other aspects of the meal organically,” Koberinski says. She suggests considering organic meat options besides turkey that are more readily available in grocery stores, such as a whole chicken or beef roast. It’s much easier to find regional organic suppliers of both, and though more expensive than the non-organic option, they’re easier on the wallet than organic turkey, which can cost up to twice as much per pound. But other small changes, she adds, such as ensuring your vegetables or side dishes are organic or local, can also make a difference.
If turkey from a certified organic farm is what you’re looking for, some quick detective work will help. Get in touch with an organic association or board in your province: they often keep directories of members on their websites or can put you in touch with a farmer. Backyard flocks from smaller family operations such as Stevers’s can be found in a similar way, but both will mean a trip to the farm or nearby specialty store. For the most part, this isn’t a bad thing. In the time I spent at Blue Haven, I learned more about rearing fowls than I ever would have from a package label, and I got to see Stevers put the farming principles she stands by to work.
I asked Stevers why she decided to raise an animal that makes very little money, particularly given her small flock size. She said, “I want to grow my own food, and that includes turkeys. I like their personalities.”
She also likes to share. The first Monday of every October, Stevers sells 20 turkeys to St. Peter’s Mission in Rockwood at half price to be prepared and served at a community dinner. That’s a large chunk of an already rare flock — and a pretty delicious reason to give thanks.
Chantal Braganza is the editor of OpenFile Toronto.
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