Thanks To Mom, We Tried Turkey Farming

I offered to host Thanksgiving year after year. My mother turned me down each time. She liked hosting the family get-together even though her kids and grandkids lived close enough to visit weekly. She preferred her wedding china and linens to my mismatched dishes and homespun tablecloth. Mostly she wanted to ensure that the meal featured homemade white crescent rolls and a large Butterball turkey filled with her own stuffing recipe. She was afraid that her annoyingly whole foods vegetarian daughter might prepare something horribly non-traditional, like nutloaf with chestnut wild rice dressing instead of turkey. Valid point.

But her health kept declining. I took to coming over early on Thanksgiving Day to stuff the turkey with her and hoist it in the oven. We all came back a few hours later with side dishes. I always brought homemade crescent rolls that looked suspiciously brown and healthy. Our meals continued to be lively events and we worked hard to make sure my mother didn’t notice how much we all helped out.

I knew she’d reached a new low in her energy level when she offered to let me host Thanksgiving a few years ago. She said I had to agree to one condition. I had to make a real turkey (not a Tofurky, she hastened to add) and stuff it with her stuffing recipe. I had to promise. I wanted to cry, knowing that she was much sicker than she let on. I promised.

But there was no way I was going to cook a typical grocery store turkey. I know these birds spend their short lives in tightly confined spaces, eating foods that aren’t natural to them. We raise pastured livestock on our little farm, so we drove nearly an hour to buy a similarly pastured turkey directly from the farmer. I felt particularly solemn as I prepared that first Thanksgiving meal at our house, knowing it was difficult enough for my mother to get from the car to the house so she could spend the day with us. At least the turkey was a hit. According to the meat-eaters in the bunch, it was the best they’d ever had. It was also so juicy that it overflowed the pan. That’s something grocery store birds don’t do, even though they’re injected with a “7% solution containing water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphate and natural flavors.”

But that pastured turkey was astonishingly expensive. We thought we might be able to raise a flock of our own more cheaply. We were wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nearby farmers gently told us that we were foolhardy. They warned us to keep turkeys “on wire,” indoors, and away from what they said were the disease-carrying dangers of grass. They said our plan to avoid feed pumped up with medications and synthetic vitamins would leave us with a dying flock. Online articles repeated these woeful predictions.

Still, the next spring we bought turkey chicks. They were raised in the warmth of an Amish kitchen until they were old enough to live outdoors.

On our place they lived in what’s called a “tractor.” This is a moveable coop, allowing the birds access to fresh areas to forage. My husband and oldest son built it with roosts and feeders. We soon learned turkeys toss food from feeders and don’t like to roost. Out came both of those modifications. Then to forestall problems with predators we added a moveable electric fence.

How much our rapidly growing chicks ate surprised us. In addition to the roots, grasses, leaves, and bugs they scratched up on their own we provided them with a locally grown and ground mix of seeds and grain. And we gave them fresh organic produce from the garden each day. They had strong preferences. One day they might eagerly eat cucumbers and squash, the next day they refused to eat those veggies but enjoyed tomatoes. They turned up their beaks at plenty of other treats, like broccoli and rutabagas.

We found turkeys quite interesting. When they’re young they peep and squawk. Then the gobble develops, something we found relentlessly amusing. Hens don’t gobble. They chirp and cluck in their own quiet manner while the toms are prone to showy displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. The toms gobbled at any noisy airborne attraction including Canada geese, crows, and helicopters. When annoyed, their heads turned iridescent blue and sometimes they engaged in snood-grabbing jousts. Our dogs were fascinated by the turkeys, but the turkeys showed little interest in creatures beyond their own genus.

All day, every day the flock had a visitor. A little brown hen moseyed up from the back of our property to visit her fowl friends. She stayed close. She pecked at grass and bugs, sometimes a few feet away and sometimes a few inches away. When we gave the turkeys a treat from the garden like a monster zucchini she’d cluck at me, waiting for her own piece. Quite often the turkeys, in their zucchini-enhanced exuberance, tossed flecks of what they were eating almost as if to share. Their friend the hen was right there waiting for those offerings. I never saw the turkeys peck at her.

What we learned about turkeys wasn’t entirely charming. Full grown turkeys are huge. Some of ours were over 80 pounds. Their poo, I’m sorry to say, was also huge. I never realized just how foul it was until I slipped and fell in it. And despite the overall health and vitality of our flock, once we factored in all the expenses there wasn’t any profit at all. Plus, after feeding and chatting with them for six months, it felt like a horrible betrayal to take them to the butcher.

This year we let the turkey farming venture go. We’re gratefully buying a pastured turkey, knowing that it’s worth the cost. It’ll be cooked with my mother’s stuffing recipe. I’ll also be using my mother’s china and linens. We’ll sit here at a table filled with friends and family, fully aware that our blessings include those made of memory.

I’ll smile this Thanksgiving at all who are here with me. I’ll leave the sob in my throat, choosing instead to share fond and funny stories of my parents who I miss every day. I realize now why every generation goes on celebrating even after the elders who made the traditions meaningful have gone. Holidays are a sort of bridge between past and future, a way of steadying ourselves with the idea that some things stay the same. When the time comes for me to pass along the honor of hosting Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll try passing along my mother’s stuffing recipe too.

honoring memories at Thanksgiving, how to raise pastured turkeys, small farm turkey story, missing mom at Thanksgiving,

Image: Karuntribs



14 thoughts on “Thanks To Mom, We Tried Turkey Farming

  1. I didn’t foresee the impact of your last paragraph. The power of your words and the depth of feeling behind them is very moving. I wish that I could turn back the clock for you.


  2. And thanks to your Mom, we had turkey that Thanksgiving—lots of it. I’ve gratefully rested my Mom’s stuffing recipe, and that of my mother-in-law, but the memories are alive and in my heart.


  3. Can relate all too well to the this post!

    It’s been a long grueling process – getting my MIL out of the Thanksgiving process.

    Her food went downhill every year after I came into the family picture – 1998 onward.

    AND, she was a deranged lunatic in the kitchen – there was no joy whatsoever.

    These poor old women have never been able to *redefine* themselves so they cling to old habits and domains.


  4. @Leslie, Susan and Karen–thank you for your dear comments. I take them to heart.

    @Debra. Probably better for you and for your guests to remember the women who have left us without stuffing as a reminder.

    @Captious. My mother’s holiday fussiness, dangerously low blood sugar behavior, and insistence on doing things exactly as they’d always been done used to make us crazy. That was one gift we gave her though, overlooking it all to see the intention underlying it. Okay, and laughing about it with her after the holiday frenzy had passed. Now that my mother and MIL have died, some of the best stories are the crazy holiday stories.


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  7. Very glad to have discovered your blog. Clicked through several posts and kept thinking I agree with where you are coming from and your very compassionate outlook on life.

    This story was moving in so many ways.

    You are a wonderful writer. Will be following your posts from now on.

    Thank you!


  8. We raised 5 heritage breeds this past year. We sold 3-18 pounders for $5.00/lb and the buyers didn’t even blink. Our profit was $132.00 this first year. Next year we may raise 10 or more. It is immensely satisfying to reach into the freezer and pull out something we grew and that will provide my wife and I, and others, at least 6 meals.


    • Wow, your experience was vastly more profitable than ours Thom.

      I do know the feeling you describe. The first time our dairy cow gave birth to a male calf I couldn’t bear the thought of raising him to be slaughtered. It didn’t get easier with subsequent calves. But I know that each steer raised on our little farm has had a good life, living on green pastures and nursing from its mother for a year and a half or longer. I don’t eat beef, but I’ve taken many a package from our freezer knowing the name of that animal. It’s discomfiting, yet deeply connecting. Here’s a glimpse at the life our cattle have lived here.


  9. We pasture raised turkeys for 4-H with our teen boys last year. Getting the chicks in June-July makes them size ready by Thanksgiving. We were donated the white turkeys from farmers. They are strictly meat birds and will die if you don’t slaughter them within months of their full weight. (I know, one did, so I mercifully killed the other.) It was an interesting learning experience for us, as well. Everything our 4-H leader claimed was true wasn’t. Our turkeys were super friendly, did like to roost…high, and were very healthy on pasture (fenced). People were shocked at the state fair that we were first years with how healthy ours were (and big).

    Thanks for sharing your family story. I also believe these holidays are about passing on generational traditions that unite us (turning the hearts of the children to their fathers/mothers). May you continue to find those traditions that will bind future generations with past ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you Cindy! Knowing you through your writing, I’m not surprised that you raised the turkeys as you did.

      Our experiences with 4-H were mixed. Lots of wonderful people but the organization is slow to evolve, still teaching kids how to raise livestock from an agribusiness perspective.


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