You asked for a post on the Thanksgiving pastured turkey harvest (well one of you did) and you got it. In preparation for her pending career, your Clueless Farmhand has been doing her best to hone her skills in poultry processing these past few weeks at Greenbranch. Saturday was turkey time. A fine flock of broad-breasted birds mingled with their heritage (and in my opinion destined to be tastier) brethren enjoying the warm November sunshine.
By all accounts, this year’s harvest went undoubtedly more smoothly than last year’s. The Greenbranch turkey harvest of 2009 was the stuff of legends, and those who were there didn’t like to talk much about it, revealing only bits and pieces before changing the subject. “Put it this way,” said Farmer Ted. “It was probably the worst day of my life.”
What went wrong? Well, here’s what I was able to gather:
1. The feeding schedule and rations alloted did not account for the supplemental calories and nutrition the flock was getting from being on pasture. Therefore, weeks before Thanksgiving, the turkeys were already alarmingly large. By harvest time, forty-pound birds were the norm. Have you ever tried to pick up a forty-pound bird, flip it upside down, coax it into an inverted cone, dunk it repeatedly in a scalder, hoist it in and out of a plucker, dress it, and bag it–in bags that were meant for 25lb birds? How about a hundred forty-pound turkeys? While some customers were thrilled with the thought of all the leftovers, others had serious problems getting these birds to fit into their ovens, and to cook in time.
2. It had been raining for much of the week. The turkeys were breast-deep in mud. So was the crew, with an extra soaking of blood once the processing began. The temperature was also in the low 40s, and there was a sharp wind blowing. The processing was taking place all outdoors.
3. Just when they had adjusted to the grim reality that this was to be their long, long day, someone backed the truck into the scalder, breaking the propane connection beyond repair. While an explosion was thankfully averted, some nimble minds had to come up with an alternative scalder scenario in the midst of the muck.
Apparently, there was more, much more, to the events of the day, but that’s all I could get out of them. It all made me very very thankful to be a part of the 2010 turkey harvest. A certain amount of efficiency was happening, when I wasn’t running around taking photos and distracting folks. Good cheer was in abundance. As was some smooth bourbon. (No, it wasn’t Wild Turkey. I said it was smooth.) And Farmer Ted even managed to smile for the camera (no surprise there, as he’s been on the cover of Delmarva’s Daily Times three times this year already!)
But what made this year’s harvest especially interesting was the presence of the heritage turkeys. Their plumage was a nice change from the white feathers of the thousands of chickens and hundreds of broad-breasted turkeys that have lived out their days at Greenbranch.
They even looked interesting naked, with their black boots.
I had to abandon the crew about 1/3 through to head off in search of my own small farm. Yep, come spring next year, I hope to graduate from Clueless Farmer to Cold Turkey farmer, because that’s what it really is when you’ve spent nary a season as a farm hand, most of it in the market at that!
But I’m not alone. My intrepid husband is making his way through a stack of books on farming and has taken to sniffing the soil when we walk the land of some prospective homestead. And we’re not even alone. There’s lots of us clueless wanna-be farmers in these parts, it appears! The folks at the Piedmont Environmental Council started offering a course, called Exploring the Small Farm Dream, and we’re taking it, along with about 30 other nice folks!
When my husband and I sit down to our pasture-raised heritage turkey tomorrow, personally processed by none other than me, the mashed potatoes are going to be cold before we’re done giving thanks for all that God has given us this year. He gave us each other, loving families, and comfortable shelter. He gave us experience on a farm with many willing and patient teachers, and a cornucopia of fresh organic produce along with chicken and eggs. And now, a turkey.
So, in the words of my eight-year-old self when it was my turn to say a prayer, “God is good, God is great, let us thank him for the food on our plate.” Amen.