You live in the city, right? So, even if you had wanted to raise your own turkey for Thanksgiving this year, your choices were limited. Like, to zero.
Well, I’m here to help.
I’ve decided to serve as your very own proxy turkey farmer. I’ve raised a few of these big birds, on a very small scale, and I’ve come away with a few jewels of knowledge I’d like to sample for my urban friends.
One-day-old turkey chicks look exactly like one-day-old chicken chicks. Most people don’t realize that chicks are sent from hatcheries via the regular U.S. mail. I pick mine up from our local poultry guru, Chet, who himself receives the bird mailings en masse on designated dates, and releases them to me—and many other DIY turkey hobbyists—upon a thorough background check to verify my sanity, patience, and endurance skills. (Thankfully, I need meet only two of the three core competencies in order to receive my good-to-go signal.)
Because I also raise broiler chickens, I always time it so the turkeys come along with the others—which is how I know they all look just the same. Cute little yellow fuzzballs with beaks, peep peep peeping together in a cardboard box all the way home. They really do like AC/DC blasting on the truck radio, I have found.
After a day or two in the heat-lamped comfort of my homemade brooder box condominium, the turkeys are easily distinguished from the broilers, mostly by size, but also because I prefer broad-breasted bronze turkeys. The colored feathers sprout within a few days, setting them off from their all-white nursery mates. Here they will remain, eating, drinking, pooping, and dozing in fits like jet-lagged old men for the next four weeks, before I move them to the orchard-based, mobile pen.
You may have noticed that I speak in plural at this point when referring to the turkeys. This reflects my learning in the school of hard knocks. Of course, as a card-carrying American, I require only one bird for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s precisely how many turkeys I intend to raise. Unfortunately, turkeys die according to their own random schedules, so I must play the odds in order to get one through to the big day. I usually start with no fewer than three chicks. Thirty-three percent is my average rate of success.
Skip this paragraph if squeamish. This year, friends asked me to raise a few extra birds, so I started with eight, hedging poorly. Wouldn’t you know it, but I (er, the turkeys) experienced an unusual but not entirely uheard of malady whereby the chicks lost their ability to stand up. I had to humanely dispatch these poor birds and start over on the date of Chet’s next available shipment, cutting it relatively close to the looming holiday season. I could only get three more. Sorry, friends, nobody ever said this would be easy.
Fast forward to the mobile pen. At four weeks the birds have enough feathers to keep themselves warm (and entertained, since preening is by now their third most favorite thing to do all day, after eating and, well, you know), so I tote them across the road to the orchard for the summer. They take up residence in the pen of nifty Amish design I built a decade ago, where they walk drunkenly along each morning as I move their new home to a fresh patch of grass, where unsuspecting and invisible-to-me grass-based bugs are suddenly on everyone’s menu.
But the grass bugs are only a mild culinary distraction compared with the birds’ main course. Domesticated broilers and turkeys can EAT. It works out to about a third of a pound of feed per day per bird. Multiply by about 50 birds (including the broilers, as you know) and this ain’t chicken feed. In fact, at current feed prices, it’s SO NOT chicken feed that I’ve come to resent that expression. Partway through the summer I have so much invested in these birds that their exasperating habit of randomly keeling over dead—even in the most sanitary, humane, well-ventilated, apple-tree-shaded, carefully watered environment—triggers in me a mixed reaction of regret and spontaneous ciphering. There goes another $10, $20, or $30, or more, depending on species and exact drop-dead date.
But I soldier on, even if the birds at times, and for reasons forever lost to the cosmos, refuse to join me.
All that aside, their summer is unmistakably pleasant. I even open the pen door from time to time when I’m around to keep an eye on them. These birds of a feather waddle forth, chasing each other in epic, fifteen-foot chicken marathons, then, exhausted, snuggle into fresh grass and chill in the sweet breeze. The turkey comes close, friendly and curious about what I might be.
But, as my organic, hog-farming friend once famously said, they do have one bad day. I’ll spare you the details. Truth is, I spare myself these same details most years. Our friends in the nearby plain community are happy to slaughter for a fee. I highly recommend this tactic. If you’ve ever partaken of said details, you know that it is a job to deeply respect, but avoid if possible. When I have participated, it’s a whole day, at least, of blood, feathers stench and backbreaking labor. One must do it well ahead of consumption or the appetite will not cooperate.
That’s the broilers. The turkey walks that walk alone, months later than the others.
Which brings us to now. Early Tuesday morning, my one remaining turkey—who has been roaming with the layers since late July—will find her way into an old, portable dog kennel. She will come with me to the Amish farm. I’ll pick her up after work, cleaned and ready. She will never be frozen: this is the key, I have learned, to the most outrageously tender, delicious Thanksgiving main course.
I’ll take her to Milwaukee, where her care will be turned over to Jen, my daughter.
On Thursday we will eat and give thanks. I expect there will be small talk of this bird. Most everyone at the table will have visited our little farm over the summer. They will have seen this turkey alive. Even the four-year-old. Especially the four-year-old. This will be the first year he may realize exactly what he is eating. He will have had a hand in it—he loved to toss rolled corn to the tidy flock after breakfast.
This dinner will be different for him, I imagine, because he will begin, if ever so slightly, to recognize the complicated elements within our nature of gratitude.