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Gobbling without the Turkey
Producer Profile: Lathrop Farms' Real Turkeys
Thanksgiving Shopping List
by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
If you’ve decided to take the leap from conventional turkey this holiday season, you’ve probably considered an heirloom bird from a local Wisconsin grower. Across the United States, the Standard Bronze turkey has risen from near extinction due in part to organizations like Slow Food and to the organic farmers who raise them. David and Jackie Lathrop, owners of Lathrop Farms in McFarland, will be supplying the Willy Street Co-op with these excellent birds, or “Real Turkeys” as they call them, for Thanksgiving this year. David says, “If everything works out right, we’ll have some hens down in the 12 pound range and we’ll have toms up over 20-21 [pounds]. Our average historically, has been 15 1/2.” About their size variations, David says, “When you’re raising something in nature, you’re not going to have the uniformity of a commercial operation where the birds are all the same size.”
Heirloom turkeys offer a superior quality to their conventional equivalents. “[Conventional turkey] has everything bred out of it. They don’t know how to run. They don’t know how to fly. They don’t know how to reproduce. They’ve genetically bred them for huge weight gain, not for quality of the meat. This (heirloom breed) has the quality, the flavor, the texture, [but] they don’t grow as big or as fast.”
David and Jackie’s 180-acre organic farm, certified since 1984, has made a stunning recovery from its former use as a conventional, or “chemical” farm, as David commonly refers to conventional farming practices. With meticulous detail to conservation practices, the Lathrop’s farm plan has brought about a positive impact on Lake Waubesa, which is located a little more than a quarter mile’s distance from the Lathrop’s land. As David recalls, “This all used to be a bald, sterile piece of soil before we bought it with half of one percent of organic material.” Ponds created by the Lathrops on the north side of their property are now frequently inhabited by a variety of migratory birds including sandhill cranes, a giant blue heron, geese and ducks. “We’ve got a lot of songbirds out here and it’s really been a rewarding project,” David explains. “The whole reason we built those ponds was to clean up the siltation problems that this watershed has because of the intensive chemical farming that they used to use out here.
As David looks out onto acres of mature grasses cover the hillside, he says, “These grasses—for every inch above the ground, there’s probably an inch to an inch and a half of root system below the ground and some of these grasses are over 6 feet tall.”
Contained and protected in acre-sized grazing paddocks, the Lathrop Farm Bronze turkeys enjoy plenty of room to act like normal turkeys—scrubbing for bugs, eating clover, roosting, and socializing. They enjoy a fresh grazing area every other day after consuming most of the vegetation in sight. Either every or every other day, the birds’ enclosure fencing is lifted and moved onto fresh grasses. The poults, or turkey chicks, bought at one day old in late June, have made a northerly progression across the wide acreage of the Lathrop’s farmland, leaving significantly improved soil behind them.
The eager swarm of birds gobble and flock as close to David as possible as he spreads feed in and around the yard. During feeding, David deliberately places feed in the areas where grasses are taller. “We control the feed very carefully,” David explains, “because we want to force them into the greens. That’s healthier for them and it’s a healthier product. But also, we have to gauge the temperature because of the conversion rate. If they don’t get enough feed, and it gets cold, they won’t gain any weight because they’re going to convert all that feed to heat. If it’s too warm out, they’ll convert all that feed to meat, and if it’s really warm, and we give them all that feed, all of a sudden they’ll blow up and we’ll have a bird we really can’t sell because it’s too large.”
Wild turkeys, increasingly visible in southern Wisconsin, do make random visits to their cousins on the Lathrop farm. “It makes me nervous,” David remarks as he rinses the water station before refilling it with fresh water, “because if they’re going to contract disease, most likely it’s going to come from the wild birds, and they will come. We haven’t seen them yet this fall, but I guarantee we will see them. They may try to hop in, but [both kinds of birds] will go their separate ways.” David adds that, occasionally, their turkeys will hop over the fence (because they can), but generally find their way back into their protective enclosure each time to be with the group.
“We don’t inoculate anything, so we try to keep most of the farm, particularly where the birds are, as a bio-secure area and we’ve arranged it so the feed trucks and fuel truck and visitors and what-have-you don’t get to that area, because somebody could accidentally cause us a problem.
I’m the only one that doesn’t, although the organic rules do permit some limited forms of inoculation, we don’t even avail ourselves of that.”
In regard to the general appearance and taste differences of the heirloom breeds over conventional turkeys, David shared some of the specifics, “The one thing about these heirloom breeds that you’ll find is that, proportionally, there’s a little bit more dark meat to white meat, which I particularly favor. They look a little bit different [pre-cooked]. They’ll have bluish-black dots on them and that’s the pigmentation left from the pin-feathers, and when you look at these birds, you’re going to see that they look like a wild bird and they kind of behave like a wild bird. We don’t clip their beaks, talons, claws or wings. They’re free to fly, and they do, but they always come back.”
There are some other differences to consider when cooking these birds. As David says, “The important thing with the turkeys, [is that they] cook a lot faster than your white bird, because they haven’t been injected with the oils and fats that they [commercial growers] use to give you that ‘mouth feel.’ For example, I think the last time I cooked a stuffed bird, it was a big one, like 24 pounds and it was over-done in 4 and a half hours and conventional white bird you would have cooked it for 8-10 hours. We keep them covered to keep that moisture in and it makes a big difference.”
“In terms of temperature,” David states, “I generally cook them at a little bit lower temperature, around 325ºF and stab it deep in the thigh. Try not to hit bone, but just deep in the thigh meat and look for that 175-180 degrees and make sure you let it sit for 15-20 minutes, maybe half and hour before cutting it, and it’ll be very flavorful.”
Finally, from the man who would know best, “The taste is wonderful—a rich taste with a full palate, a texture, you know that you’re really chewing on something good. A lot of folks say it takes them back...decades, to the way that poultry used to taste when they lived on the farm. A lot of senior citizens in particular enjoy it. I enjoy them, I enjoy growing them and I enjoy eating them. And I believe in preserving the heirloom breeds and expanding them, making more people aware of what good food is.”
Real Turkeys will be available for pre-order on November 1 by calling the Customer Service desk at 251-6776 and Lathrop Farms’ Real Chickens are available in the Willy Street Co-op meat case. To contact the Lathrop Farm, call (608) 835-7687.