Local Turkey on the Table?

local turkey table

While it’s nice to know that the wild kind is thriving in Oklahoma, for the Thanksgiving table most of us are probably going to turn to domesticated turkeys.

In contrast to the comeback story of their wild cousins, domesticated turkeys in Oklahoma are still bumping along at the nadir of a decades-long population decline. As we documented in Closer to Home, 17% of Oklahoma farms were raising turkeys during the 1940s and 1950s.

But by 1959, the number had dropped to only 3%, and from the 1980s on, only 1% of Oklahoma farms raised turkeys. The most recent numbers do offer a slight glimmer of positive news. Between the two most recently published national agricultural censuses, in 2012 and 2017, the number of Oklahoma farms raising turkeys increased from 489 to 659.

Still, compare that to the number of Oklahoma households that serve turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and you can begin to get an idea what an untapped potential for local production and marketing exists out there.

Unpacking the term “sustainable” where turkeys are concerned can take a little doing. What’s wrong with conventionally raised turkeys? What do all the different labels mean?

Conventional turkeys suffer under many of the same conditions that afflict other large commercial poultry operations – raised in such cramped quarters that they’re debeaked to keep them from harming each other, and fed regular doses of antibiotics to compensate for that disease-prone setting. The primary commercial breed has been selected for such a large breast that the birds are too heavy to mate on their own!

Pastured turkeys, on the other hand, have space to roam, and are able to supplement their diet with whatever bugs and worms they can forage for themselves. This results in a more flavorful, healthier meat. Many pastured turkey operations raise heritage breeds, preserving the species’ genetic diversity for future generations.

Mother Earth News offers more detail on these points, as well as a detailed guide on how to cook a pastured turkey. One key tip: order early! Many operations that direct-market pastured turkeys take orders – and deposits – at the time they’re hatching or ordering poults. Now is not too early to start asking around for next Thanksgiving! Check out websites like LocalHarvest and Eatwild for leads on local suppliers.

If you’re leaning more toward raising your own turkey for the table – or to sell to others, the Livestock Conservancy’s website offers extensive information, including a directory of sources of heritage breeds, and a free manual on all aspects of raising, processing, and selling them.

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