Turkeys take center stage this time of year-- especially on the Full Quiver Farm in Suffolk, Va., where demand for pasture-raised turkeys is high.
In the family-run business, Scott and Alison Wilson along with their nine children work to turn out a product that harkens back to the good old days.
"We have a number of older folks who come and buy from us and they say this tastes like the chicken grandma used to make," Scott Wilson said. "It reminds me of the bacon we had when I was little"
Worth the Cost
Turkeys are for sale on the farm just once a year-- but customers say it's well worth the wait.
It took about 11 months to raise this year's class of 350 broad-breasted white turkeys, compared to just a few months for commercially raised birds.
The Wilsons say that improves flavor, but also adds to the cost. A 16 pound turkey sells for about $60, but even in this tough economy they will go quickly.
More and more customers are willing to pay extra for a healthier alternative.
The Wilsons like to refer to the birds as "pasture-raised" turkeys rather than "free range." They say the latter term is misleading.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to use the term producers only need to provide birds with access to the outside, meaning cooped-up turkeys can pass as free range if they are merely given a tiny door they never go through.
"Birds can be raised in a big metal building and be able to range around on the floor and that's free-range with a little patio to the outside," Wilson explained.
Likewise, the U.S.D.A. says organic turkeys must be allowed to go outside, not be given antibiotics or growth hormones and eat chemical-free feed.
That's a stark contrast to turkeys raised on industrial farms, where they're often kept inside large coops and chemicals are a daily fixture on the menu.
Because of the label confusion and growing concern surrounding the food industry, consumers are turning to locally produced food in great numbers.
Robin Barnard is a loyal customer who sees both the health and flavor benefits.
"It's very good. It takes longer to cook and the meat's more dense. It definitely has a different taste to it, much better flavor," Barnard said.
Turkey is one of the healthiest foods around with benefits that can be enjoyed year round, like reduced LDL or bad cholesterol, lean protein, niacin, vitamins B6, B12 and zinc.
It can also help with cancer prevention and mood enhancement from high levels of the amino acid tryptophan.
Pasture-raised turkeys also have an especially healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats and are even lower in fat and calories than industrially raised turkeys.
The demand for local, natural food is increasing so rapidly, the Wilsons are trying to spread the message and encourage others to start their own small farm.
The couple used to live in the city eight years ago, eating lots of processed food. Four of the kids had asthma, which the Wilsons say disappeared when they stopped eating food laced with chemicals.
"I started adjusting their diet and we saw those changes and we came to the conclusion, 'If that's the case, where are we going to find this food?'" Anita Wilson recalled.
"It wasn't readily available at that point," she said. "There were no health food, organic stores around... So we started looking at [starting a farm] ourselves."
In addition to farming, they learned others were yearning for a clean diet, too.
"As we started raising it for ourselves and let our friends try, it grew very quickly for a start-up business," she added. "Within three or four years Scott was able to leave his full-time job and support a family of 11. That's almost unheard of in a new business."
The Wilsons kids are now home schooled, so the family is together.
They get lots of exercise and have plenty of responsibility, including nurturing what will be the main course for hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners.
--Published Nov. 18, 2011.