This is a story about turkeys — the $7.5 billion industry that condemns roughly 240 million birds to death each year for the dining pleasure of Americans.
Americans love turkey. They love it so much that on average, each of them eats about 16 pounds a year, though not normally at one sitting.
That’s six pounds more than the average Canadian, who consumes the second-most turkey in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Demand requires supply, so the vast majority of turkeys are raised at large-scale farming operations, some of which engage in inhumane practices, some allege.
According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the birds at these farms are hatched in large incubators and “never see their mothers or feel the warmth of a nest.”
Within a few weeks of hatching, the birds are “moved into filthy, windowless sheds with thousands of other turkeys, where they will spend the rest of their lives,” PETA said.
The large-scale poultry farming operation closest to Grand Junction, Foster Farms, is located in Delta. Foster Farms turkey growers were the first in the nation to receive a seal of approval from the American Humane Society. They raise and sell birds according to ethical standards created by the likes of Temple Grandin, who worked on guidelines the Delta farms presumably adopted.
Foster Farms’ corporate office did not return a telephone call requesting comment for this story.
Around the nation, commercial farms incubate around 25 million turkey eggs every month, according to the USDA.
After the poults hatch, hundreds are shipped to the Grand Junction post office, mostly in the springtime, said Judy Pierle, owner of Mesa Feed Mart, 715 S. Seventh St.
Pierle orders the poults 25 at a time between February and May to meet the demand of Grand Junction area backyard farmers who want to raise the Thanksgiving feast in their own backyard.
Some never make it to the dinner table, Pierle said.
“They make wonderful pets,” she said.
Jennifer Galvan used to buy poults until she grew a couple breeding pair of bourbon red turkeys. Beautiful to look at, but smaller than the standard bronze, Galvan said the birds breed naturally and give her as many as 40 poults a year, some of which she sells and the rest she butchers to feed her family.
She sells the youngest turkeys for $9 and the most mature for $15 each.
“They’re easy to raise,” Galvan said. “The only part that’s hard is the babies. They’re so tiny when they come out they can die very easily. They come out about the size of a golf ball — little, tiny, round, fluffy, usually brown or darker brown with speckles and tiny bit of yellow on their heads. They’re just adorable.”
Another problem is lawn mowers. Earlier this year, Galvan lost one of her hens when a neighbor mowed the weeds where the turkey was nesting.
Until about a year ago, Lee Gagne, a self-supporting, backyard farmer who lives west of the city, raised turkeys to feed his family and sometimes broke even selling the birds to friends.
He quit turkeys and now raises peacocks, which offer a better return on investment, he said. By the way, Gagne said roasted peacocks taste like turkey.
The man knows plenty about the birds but he is definitely not an expert.
“I’m just a regular guy that raises turkeys,” he said.
Gagne slaughtered his last two gobblers a while ago using a secret process he agreed to reveal for this story ... but that comes later.
His first piece of advice for would-be backyard turkey farmers is to let the birds roam free during daylight hours, but build a pen for nighttime.
“You need one mostly to protect the turkeys from predators — coyotes and dogs, raccoons, skunks, foxes — you’ve got to make an enclosure that protects the birds from other things,” Gagne said.
Plan to spend at least $36 on two or three bags of turkey feed, which is what it will take to grow them to the proper roasting size, he said.
“It’s way cheaper to buy turkeys at City Market,” Gagne said. “You can buy them at Christmas for under a buck a pound.”
There are no store-bought birds at Gagne’s Thanksgiving, however.
“I know when I put that turkey on the table ... it’s going to taste great and it doesn’t have any hormones or any other kind of stuff to make it grow quickly. It’s just a regular, happy, old bird.”
(Note: Squeamish readers may want to turn the page here.)
A regular, happy, old bird is butchered as follows:
Place the head of the animal in special funnel and stretch out the neck.
Chop off the head and let the blood drain.
“I don’t like to cut off their heads and let them run around. They might run into something and bruise the meat,” Gagne said.
Next, plunge the dead bird head-first into a large pot of boiling water. Swish it around for about ten seconds, then hang it up to dry. Start pulling feathers.
Now, for Gagne’s secret: Bees wax. Cover the bird in melted bees wax (other types of wax will probably work) and allow it to cool. As you remove the cool wax, it will take the small, hair-like feathers with it.