Turkey Farms of New Hampshire
Penned by myself as printed, and courtesy of, 'New Hampshire To Do' Magazine.
No event more clearly signifies traditional New England better than Thanksgiving, and no icon embodies the season more appropriately than a Thanksgiving Turkey. To honor the season I thought it appropriate to discover New Hampshire's own connections to the illustrious bird: by exploring local farms that specialize in the sacred bird of feast.
Brandon and Mary Sussman run Webster Ridge Farm with one goal in mind: To
produce quality food that, above all, tastes good. They consider Webster Ridge
a natural farm, being careful about what goes into the care of their turkeys.
No pesticides, hormones, or chemicals are used, and provided no major catastrophes
occur, they intend to keep it that way.
The Sussman's pasture their turkeys in a 'hoop fence', a large round circle of wire with a mesh top that gives the gobblers a good deal of space to roam. The fence is raised and repositioned on new ground every few days, giving the turkeys fresh pasture to graze upon, new scenery, and if they're lucky - a fresh grasshopper to enjoy. The fence exists more to keep predators out than to keep the turkeys in. Since turkeys are an extremely social bird, if one does get out it's usually found a few minutes later trying to rejoin his long lost flock.
As for the 'science' involved in great tasting poultry? According to Brandon, it's simple. Stress, and crowding creates discomfort for the birds that can adversely affect the quality and flavor of the meat. The quality care and stress-free conditions the Sussman's provide assure that the birds are happy, healthy, and most importantly, tasty. Don't believe me, believe a farmer. Natural foods just taste better.
Jocose Farm is another small and friendly natural farm, supporting a small turkey population reared exclusively for local Thanksgiving feasts. The farm is known along the Seacoast as a Farmers' Market mainstay, specializing in fresh natural lamb. Their turkey offerings are a little known secret.
Visiting the farm, I was greeted by long time farmer, Barbara Hutchinson, who explained her roots in farming. She had always dreamed of owning her own horse, and eventually made the dream a reality. "Once I graduated, I got a job, bought a horse, and became a farmer - all in the same day." The quaint little farm, tucked cozily at the end of a bumpy backwoods road more closely resembles a petting zoo than a working farm. Here you'll find horses, Siberian Huskies (used as Sled Dogs), sheep, chickens, and of course, turkeys. Here, the sheep and turkey are allowed to roam freely together, seemingly impervious to one another's company. "The sheep keep the turkeys company" Barbara joked.
Most of Barbara's turkeys are already reserved for Thanksgiving, though she
does still have a few available. As for next year: "If people want 'em,
I'll raise 'em."
Joseph Morette, another local farmer, started raising turkeys with his sons about 22 years ago with just five birds. Now he's up to 400. Often referred to as "The Turkey Man from New Hampshire," Joe has a personal goal of providing the perfect turkey. He considers Thanksgiving almost sacred, and his turkeys serve as his personal contribution. It is his hope that "The spiritual energy that goes into these birds is released when someone sits down to enjoy them."
According to Joe, "My birds are top-shelf, they get nothing but the best. The poults (chicks) are raised on Beechwood beddings, the same type of wood that Budweiser is aged in. Their water is pure from my own wells, and my feed is top quality." But Joe has a secret ingredient he is glad to discuss openly. That secret ingredient is Beer. Not beer supplements or brewers yeast, but the real deal. Joe complements his turkey's diet of grain with fresh Coors, approximately 72 cans per day, administered in a homemade beer trough designed specifically for the purpose of providing the malty brew.
"In my opinion, Coors is the best beer there is, so, of course, that's what I give my turkeys." The logic behind the daily watering is simple. "If people drink too much beer they start to put on extra weight, you know, like a beer belly. Same goes for turkeys." Joe swears by this belief offering that the additional protein and carbohydrates from the rice-based beverage puts the fat on the birds just under the skin, not in the meat itself, making a delightfully juicy and flavorful presentation. Most of Joe's famous birds are raised specifically for an exclusive (and secret) restaurant that just happens to be one of the Top-10 grossing family-owned restaurants in the US, so he may just be onto something. Since the destination is hush, we'll just have to reserve one of Joe's birds and see for ourselves.
For those who can't get enough of the season, Stonewall Farm hosts an annual
"Thanksgiving Farm Fare," Nov. 22 and 23rd on their farm in Keene.
Free to the public, the event promotes Monadnock region farmers, focusing
on traditional Thanksgiving produce, natural turkeys from Clearwater Farms,
and everything in between. There are over 20 vendors, specialty food producers
and a handful of juried traditional crafters, as well as homemade food concessions.
A true New England event for those 'not from here' to get a taste of the way
things used to be, and pick up a farm fresh bird in the process.
No mention of the word 'Turkey' in New Hampshire would be complete without a visit to Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant in Meredith. Though no longer an actual working farm, the tradition still lingers. Hart's knows Turkey. Without hesitation, a near-perfect Turkey dinner was presented before me and I have to admit, was right on par with Grandma's traditional (on one of her 'off' days). In other words, it was good, real good, but just not quite that good.
Hart's' point of view on great quality has always been, "If you want it done right, do it yourself," so practically everything is made on the premises. This is no small feat if you consider some Hart's statistics: On a busy day they serve over one ton of turkey, 40 gallons of gravy, and over 1000 pounds of potatoes.
Not all turkey farmers in the state, however, are concerned with table presentation. Serenity Farm in Barnstead specializes in turkeys with a much different purpose. Patrick Sheehy and Janice Barnhart raise what are known as heritage breeds. Heritage breeds are the "original", old fashioned, unimproved breeds that were kept on farms prior to the development of the modern commercial breeds. Several of these rare breeds are in danger of extinction, some down to only a few known individuals, and are in desperate need of attention before they are gone for good.
Heritage farmers not only pride themselves in preserving the diversity of a species, some, like Patrick, also enjoy showing the birds in poultry shows across the region. Presently, Patrick raises two of the rare breeds, the Bourbon Red and the Royal Palm. He soon hopes to introduce the signature New England breed, the Narragansett. Once a mainstay of a New England Thanksgiving, this breed was raised commercially in Rhode Island and destined for the tables in and around Boston. Sadly, the breed is now severely close to extinction, some estimates placing the number of known breeding females to be less than 5.
According to Patrick, economics are partly to blame. 90% of all turkeys are all of one single breed, the Large White. Since these birds are bred solely for meat production, they have become so unnaturally large in size that hens will actually crush their eggs and offspring while trying to sit the nest. The Toms are often so large they lose the ability to walk. The Large White can also no longer reproduce naturally, and instead relies on man to accommodate the act of breeding. (Darwin would probably have a few things to interject on this practice, and possibly even offer a prediction or two on the future of the turkey.)
According to Patrick, "The heritage breeds deserve to be preserved as a genetic resource in the event of an epidemic in the commercial animals, or if for no other reason than for posterity, as a living record of our agricultural past."
Patrick's flock is beautiful and stately, roaming freely in a huge fenced pasture. Alongside the turkeys are ducks, geese, guinea fowl, and even a peacock. Patrick, a man with an obvious affinity to his birds, takes a moment each day to sit upon a bench overlooking his flocks and reflect upon his purpose and enjoy his results - the birds themselves. He is a wealth of knowledge on the subject and is more than willing to share his thoughts to anyone who may be interested in the plight of the heritage turkey.
I hope I have inspired you to learn more about our local turkey farms. The best resource to connect you with the small farms of the state is administered by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, listing local farms and their specialties. Check it out at http://www.state.nh.us/agric/rural.html and find yourself the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.
Turkey 'to knows" (not part of the article but possibly useful)
Let me impart some of the basic turkey facts I have learned in my journeys. The majority of our farmers don't raise 'organic' turkeys, and instead refer to them as 'natural.' The reasoning is simple. Certified Organic feed is required to produce a truly 'organic' turkey. Though none of the farmers were opposed to idea, they have good reason for not becoming fully organic. Organic feed is twice the price of standard feed, feed being the primary cost of raising a bird (the rest is labor). Therefore the price per pound of a turkey would essentially have to double just for the organic label, with no visible benefit to the farmer or the birds. Local farmers already struggle to meet the rock bottom prices of the major turkey producers, and the cost ultimately inhibits the organic label.
Another thing to consider: If you're going to go fresh you have to be willing to give up convenience. Most small farms 'process' the birds themselves. From what I understand, it is a long and unpleasant process (as you can probably imagine) that for the most part occurs only at Thanksgiving. One farmer almost gave up Turkeys altogether when faced with frigid weather during processing, so cold in fact the feathering machine kept icing over. Since there are very few (if any) commercial turkey processing plants in the state, most farmers do it themselves. As a result there are no deep freeze units or high tech storage equipment, and turkeys need to be picked up immediately after processing. Otherwise we're talking a Mega-mart-ball, and with all these natural local opportunities, why would you want anything but the best?
Which leads me to my final point. You pay for what you get. Fresh turkey, depending on market conditions, will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 per pound. This would make a 16 pound bird the same price as a trip to the movies for a family of four - though the memories of the best bird you have ever tasted will linger far longer.
To use as an aside or to use as a 'contact' page.
New Hampshire Turkey farmers:
Gary raises approximately 250 natural birds, many of which are destined for the Thanksgiving Farm Fare at Stonewall Farm in Keene. Presently taking orders from the public for Thanksgiving. The farm also produces corn, potatoes, pork and beef.
Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant
Rte 3, Meredith, NH 03253 (603) 279-6212
Landmark New Hampshire restaurant specializing in all things Turkey.
For those who find themselves Thanksgiving challenged, or if Grandma is on a well-deserved retirement retreat in Vegas, Hart's can help. Beginning November 1, orders can be made for Thanksgiving Turkeys with all the fixins, other times of the year with a 24-hour advance notice.
Lamb, chickens & turkeys, farm fresh eggs. Speak to Barbara at the Exeter and Portsmouth Farmers market - http://www.seacoastgrowers.org/index.html - she's the one with the delicious farm fresh lamb.
Premium turkeys, open ranged & beer fed. Specializing in providing fresh turkeys to businesses, institutions, and individuals.
Patrick Sheehy/Janice Barnhart
Barnstead, NH 03218
Preservation and show bird farm.
Anyone wanting further information on the plight of the heritage turkey breeds, are interested in Serenity Farm, or would like to schedule an appointment to visit these rare breeds may contact Patrick or visit one of the following websites:
242 Chesterfield Road, Keene 03431
Along with hosting the Thanksgiving Farm Fare, the public is welcome to view the working farm traditions at Stonewall Farm free of charge, seven days a week. The farm offers chickens,
turkeys, sheep, goats, dwarf goats, pigs, Belgian Horses and Cows as well as a nature trail, picnic area and a daily milking of the cows at 4:30 p.m.
Webster Ridge Farms
Brandon and Mary Sussman
The farm not only offers turkey, but also pasture raised lamb, poultry and eggs, chevon (goat!), vegetables, and even an amiable donkey named Sparkle. Beef, Venison, and Buffalo also available from other local farmers, as well as a subscription/delivery service of fresh local food presently serving the Lakes region. Farm visits by appointment.