It's estimated that Americans consume around 40 million turkeys in the month of November, and the vast majority of those are purchased at a sale price from a big box supermarket. But the living conditions of those bargain birds have gotten some bad press lately. An internet search for "secret Butterball video" could have you planning a fully-vegetarian meal in under three minutes. So what's a dark-meat-loving, animal-welfare-concerned person to do?
In Indiana, the solution is easy: buy a local bird, raised humanely on pasture. Last-minute shoppers are out of luck: Most farmers sell to-order and require pickup the weekend before the holiday. But turkey tastes just fine later in the holiday season - and there's always next year.
If you ask a farmer why you should purchase a local turkey, they'll give you three reasons: better flavor, improved quality of life for the animal and support of the local economy.
"The taste and quality are absolutely amazing," says Darby Simpson of Simpson Family Farm in Martinsville. Because the animals live and eat in natural conditions and eat grasses as well as grains, which are often organically grown or custom blended by the farmer, their meat has more flavor. And because the animals actually get to move around and use their muscles, the meat is tender but firm. Simpson says that the turkey, of all animals, demonstrates the starkest difference between "an industrially-raised animal and a pastured local animal."
If the flavor argument isn't enough, concern over the life of the animal can be a convincing factor. A quick comparison of the quality-of-life differences between turkeys from huge operations and local farms will reveal night and day disparities.
"Our birds are raised on pasture in an environment where they are able to practice their species-specific behaviors - which in the case of turkeys are grazing, dust baths, running, eating bugs, and playing," explains Mandy Corry of Shacht Farm in Bloomington, who reiterates with a laugh that the turkeys actually do play. She raised 900 birds this fall, about 150 of which will end up on Indianapolis-area tables in coming days.
There are also plenty of ways that buying local supports not just a single farmer but a regional economy. "Our hatchery is a small operation near Cincinnati, our birds are processed in Indiana, our grain is organically-grown in central Indiana," Simpson says, adding that turkeys are by far his most expensive animal to raise, which is why the cost can cause many first-time customers to raise an eyebrow.
At between $4 and $5 a pound, local birds don't come cheap, at least when compared to the supermarket variety. The average price of a locally bought turkey is around $75. The key to getting the most bang for your buck is to get as many meals as possible from the animal.
"If you spend $75 on a turkey, and even go all out on local vegetables from the farmer's market, you might spend $125-$150 on a meal that feeds 15 or more people, which makes it less than $10/serving," says Simpson.
Many farms include recipes with their birds: Corry, for instance, offers tips for a Turkey Soup that uses the leftover frame along with any extra meat and vegetables from your dinner.
Most farms start taking orders (with a deposit) in September, and often sell out of reserved turkeys a couple weeks before the holiday. A few small local grocers (Goose the Market, Georgetown Market, and Good Earth, to name a few) also sell turkeys on-order, if not from local then from regional farms.
As far as tips for cooking a local bird? Mandy says it doesn't need much fussing because the flavor is already in the meat. "You really can't mess it up - just don't overcook it."
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