The Eat with Care blog
Writing on humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian.
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How to buy a humanely raised turkey for Thanksgiving
Order early. Order early. Order early!
I write this three times because a) I’m late in getting this post up, and b) if you want to order a pasture-raised turkey, small farms tend to sell out fast, as they don’t have many turkeys to begin with. So mind the calendar — and pick up that phone!
Actually, wait. Before you pick up the phone, decide if you want a pasture-raised turkey or not. As you might know, turkeys evolved in the wild, where they could run around, flap their wings, eat bugs and worms, and nest in trees. On pasture-based farms, they get to do all that. If this humane issue is important to you (and taste, too — people say pastured turkeys taste better), expect to pay more — around $5 a pound. Pasture-based farmers incur more labor costs, and birds grow slower, meaning grain costs are higher. (Today’s turkeys can’t just eat from pasture, they also need grain in their diet.)
Alternatively, there’s the free-range option. On free-range farms, the turkeys are kept in barns at night and during inclement weather, but they’re let out during the day. How long are they let out, and are they let out onto grass or just bare ground? Ah, you’ll have to ask the farmer; free-range can mean different things. But expect to pay around $3 to 4 a pound. Although they might not be labeled “free-range,” certified organic turkeys fall under this category because they are only required to have access to an outdoor space.
Then there’s the “kind-of-like-an-industrial-farm-but-not” kind of farm that raises turkeys indoors but with a bit more room than the standard factory farm. Expect to pay around $2 to $3 a pound.
(By the way, contrast all of these prices with that of a standard factory farmed turkey: around $1.50 a pound. I won’t put that price in bold & italics because Humaneitarian frowns on this kind of purchase, unless it is all one can afford.)
NOW you can pick up the phone. If you’re not sure where to find a pasture-based farm in your area, I suggest the following:
- Pay a visit to your local food co-op. The store (find yours here) will probably have signs advertising local turkeys for sale. But remember: the words “natural” and “local” don’t indicate a thing about how the birds were raised. Ask for “pasture-raised.”
- Check the website of your local farmers’ market. Local turkey farms might be listed there. You can find your farmers’ market here.
- Visit FarmPlate or Local Harvest: two terrific websites where you can type in your zip code and local farms will pop up.
If a free-range turkey is what you’re looking for, head over to your local supermarket or co-op and ask the butcher or meat department employee if any of the turkeys are free-range. (Some companies use free-range practices but don’t use that label.) If the meat department tells you the bird was raised naturally, or locally, or in Amish country, or without antibiotics, tell them sorry, that doesn’t indicate how the animal lived.
You can also visit Humaneitarian’s brand list to see if any major poultry purveyors raise animals in a way that is satisfactory to you. (I apologize — the list is woefully short right now because it is in development.) The national brands on this list raise turkeys free-range or give them more space than the industry average. Beware of brands that simply say “humanely raised” on their packaging without giving any more details.
Remember, no matter what option you choose — pastured, free-range, or indoors-with-more-space – the organic version may cost more. Organic grain is costlier than regular grain, and organic practices incur more labor costs for farmers. Also, a heritage breed turkey may cost even more, as they take much longer to grow and can be challenging to raise.
Finally, on the big day, if you’re the one cooking and serving this precious bird, casually tell your guests where it came from and how it was raised. Let’s make Thanksgiving an occasion to give thanks for all the farmers out there who are treating their poultry with care.