Local, pasture-raised turkey makes statement at Thanksgiving
Dan Hiday, left, sells a turkey to June Rivers at Eastern Market as his son Aaron looks on. Hiday Farms' business has increased this year. (Darrel Ellis / The Detroit News)
Christina Rogers / The Detroit News
In planning a Thanksgiving feast, Detroiter Sharon Dolente could have plucked a 20-pound turkey from almost any grocery store.
But what kind of statement would that make?
"I'd rather know I'm getting it straight from the farm," said Dolente, a 35-year-old attorney, touting the environmental and economic benefits of buying local. "I like my food to have the least amount of chemicals."
And with more people flocking to buy locally grown products, many turkey growers are latching onto the trend by marketing free-roaming fowl as a more sustainable alternative to industrial-farm raised turkeys. Local food advocates say turkeys raised on the range nearby are less damaging to the environment because they don't produce as much concentrated waste and cut down on transportation costs.
"It's kind of like putting a mission or cause behind your Thanksgiving meal," said Randall Fogelman, vice president of business development at Detroit's Eastern Market Corp., which helps mobilize resources for the farmers market.
This year, his organization has received a lot more calls from shoppers looking for local, pasture-raised turkeys, something Fogelman attributed to diners wanting to know where and how their food is grown.
Customers are willing to pay a premium for free-roaming gobblers, even though they're not always easy to find and must be ordered weeks ahead of time. Many farms are sold out of the birds for Thanksgiving, but some growers will have them available for Christmas.
Dan Hiday, owner of The Hiday Farm in Burlington, near Battle Creek, is among the local farmers who have watched the popularity of these birds grow.
Hiday sold all his 46 pasture-raised turkeys weeks before Thanksgiving, despite the steep price tag. His whole turkeys go for about $3.50 a pound, compared to those at Wal-Mart, which ring up for about 40 cents a pound.
"We were pleasantly surprised," said Hiday, standing in front of a sign at Eastern Market that advertised his pasture-raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys.
Small turkey farms grow
Larry Doll, co-owner of Back Forty Acres in Chelsea, said his farm isn't able to keep up with demand. Last year, he raised and sold 72 free-range turkeys; this year, he raised the number to 120.
"Here we are a week before Thanksgiving and we're all sold out," Doll said.
While there are no good figures tracking locally grown turkeys sales, Michigan has seen an increase in farms raising small numbers of turkeys, an indicator more of them may be doing it organically, said Susan Smalley, director of the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University.
In 2007, about 430 Michigan farms reported producing up to 2,000 turkeys each, she said, citing federal agriculture statistics. That's up from 342 farms in 2002, about a 25 percent increase, she said.
Smalley warned, however, that locally grown doesn't always mean more sustainable. Some turkeys may not be pasture raised, organic, treated humanely or antibiotic free, she said.
"Many locally raised turkeys do have some or even all of these attributes, but we can't assume that they are automatically part of the package," she said.
Planning weeks ahead
Dolente and her husband, Steve Tobocman, 39, went through the trouble of ordering their turkey weeks in advance to reinforce their eat-local stance at Thursday's dinner table.
On Saturday, they were at Eastern Market picking up the main ingredient -- an armful of a dead bird raised on pastures not more than 130 miles away at The Hiday Farm. "We spend a lot of time talking with our friends about these issues," Dolente said.
After all, it's only appropriate the turkey serve as the centerpiece of discussion.