BOX There's ‘huge demand’ for organic birds this Thanksgiving

By Holly Ebel

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

The big feast is just a week away and for most of us, the turkey will be purchased at the supermarket.

Commercially, the most widely-used breed of domesticated turkey is called the Broad Breasted White. These turkeys are a result of elaborate genetic engineering that bring big birds and lots of white meat to the table. In a nation of white meat lovers, 70 percent of the bird is white meat. The complaint many have is that they are dry and in many cases tasteless, one of the reasons cooks give for injecting and brining.

But hold on. There are other turkeys being raised that bring a much better, tastier bird.


With consumers looking for more natural products and being concerned about what animals eat and how they are being raised, there are alternatives. A booming industry among small farmers are the free-range and heritage turkeys, though they are more expensive than the supermarket bird. Here the birds are allowed to forage rather than being raised in an industrial crowded setting.

"There is a huge demand for natural turkeys," said Lori Callister of Callister Farms in West Concord. "This year, I raised 1,000 and that was not nearly enough. Customers started ordering last spring for this year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Callister raises the White Nicholas turkey, as well as the Broad Breasted Bronze. They are fed corn and whatever they forage around the pasture. "No medications, no hormones, no stimulants," she said. "We have one acre just for the turkeys, but we did have to also build a huge pen to keep them contained — they fly all over the place — as well as to keep the predators out, like coyotes."

In the business for 20 years, she also does the processing for her birds as well as for others since a local processor recently closed. Though most of her turkeys have already been spoken for, it is still worth giving her a call at (507) 527-8521. They sell for $3.25 a pound.

Sarah Fendry of Summer Hill Family Farm in Lanesboro has pasture-raised certified organic White Broad Breasted turkeys. Regulars at the Rochester Farmers Market, she reports that they still have some available. "We raised 125 hens, though we did have more. You always lose some to weather and predators." Selling at $3.25 a pound, they range in weight from 15 to 18 lbs. Reach her at (507) 467-3320.

Rochester Produce sells fresh free-range turkeys from northern Minnesota. "These are the cleanest, healthiest I have seen in 25 years in the business," says Dave Kruse, the meat manager. Certified free-range and 100 percent natural, Kruse has 500 on order and is still taking orders. They won’t be in the store until the week of Thanksgiving. "They are still running around and won’t be processed until the weekend. They don’t get too much fresher than that," Kruse said. Customers ordering a turkey will also be given a pumpkin pie as a special bonus. You will pay $2.39 per pound.

Heritage turkeys — those old-fashioned birds that ruled Thanksgiving until the 1950s — were on the verge of extinction until a small group of concerned farmers began raising them about a decade ago. Turkeys can only be called Heritage if they show certain genetic traits which includes natural mating, a long life-span and slow growth rates. Prized for their rich flavor, beautiful appearance and flavorful meat, one such grower is Diane Leonhardt of Nature’s Little Farms in Kellogg. She raises Bourbon Reds, a leaner, smaller bird with more dark meat. Free-range and pasture-fed, according to Leonhardt, who adds, "My biggest problem has been the wind and rains of the past summer as well as the raccoons. I started out with 170 and lost over 40." Most of her turkeys are bought by Cooks of Crocus Hill, a combination kitchen store and cooking school in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at (507) 767-4435.

Other markets are also offering fresh free-range birds. Just Rite is selling free-range turkeys for $1.99 per pound. Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe has fresh turkeys for $1.89 per pound and free-range turkeys for $2.39 per pound. All are Minnesota-grown.


Holly Ebel is a Rochester freelance writer.

Turkey trivia

  • The average American eats 16.9 lbs. of turkey each year.
  • 97 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
  • Six hundred and seventy-five million pounds of turkey are eaten each Thanksgiving.
  • Last year, U.S. turkey growers produced more than 269 million birds with 45 million eaten at Thanksgiving and another 22 million at Christmas.
  • Minnesota is one of the leading turkey producers.
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