When shopping for your Thanksgiving bird, it will be tempting to grab one at the supermarket. But instead of buying store-bought, have you considered a tasty, locally sourced bird for a free-range Thanksgiving? The past 2 decades have given way to a steady rise of small farms across the United States that are working to change our current big agriculture, factory farm food system. Local farmer, Donald Blake is doing just that with Terrapin Farms in Renick, WV. Raising chickens and turkeys since 2002, Donald is preparing for the Thanksgiving Harvest with about 125 turkeys.
From the 1880’s into the 1920’s, Lewisburg was a massive producer of turkeys and was considered the turkey capital of WV. Ben Anderson from the Greenbrier Historical Society recently shared information with us about the “Great Turkey Runs” driving hundreds of birds down the main street in downtown Lewisburg. He says, “These turkeys were, of course, all from local farms. No big corporations like there are today. That’s what made it so unique, that all of these turkeys would be driven from various farms like a cattle drive, through Lewisburg, and down to Ronceverte, where they would be put on the train and shipped out.” Ben goes onto tell us that mass production really slowed by the late 1920’s with the Depression, WWII ten years later, and the end of railroad dominance.
While Lewisburg is no longer known as the turkey capital of WV, it is still a big player in turkey production with Aviagen Turkeys in Lewisburg, a premier supplier of breeding stock worldwide. They came to Lewisburg in the mid 1980’s as British United Turkeys (BUTA) and Aviagen bought them out in 2005. “Aviagen breeds the turkeys and no processing is involved. They are one of the most respected breeders in the world. In this regard, Lewisburg may be called the “Turkey Breeding Capital in the World,” says Ben Anderson.
Every year in early May, Donald buys his turkeys from Aviagen Turkeys. He tells us he’s very pleased working with them. He says the birds’ lifespans are short and when they reach 5 to 6 months of age, most of them are full-grown only to pack on more fat. Harvesting time comes when the toms are between 30-40 lbs and the hens 20-25 lbs. At November’s Thanksgiving harvest, Donald aims for a very humane and respectful death of all the birds. He currently has 50 customers who are “regulars” and purchase a turkey every year. The goal this year is to sell all 125 birds.
Donald is a social studies teacher by day at Davis Stuart, Inc. and farmer by late afternoon. The Greenbrier Valley’s long history of turkey raising encouraged Donald to start Terrapin Farms. Donald also turns to Joel Salatine, an unconventional farmer and author who offers educational advice on sustainable livestock management. Salatine’s philosophy is animals must eat healthy grass where they can thrive in a symbiotic life cycle. Through one of Salatine’s books, “Pastured Poultry Profits,” Donald more or less learned the blueprint for sustainable pasture base agriculture.
In 2011 and 2012, there was a scandal with Butterball Turkey, which brought to light the importance of this shift. Mercy For Animals revealed the abuse Butterball turkeys underwent in factory farming environments, such as extreme physical abuse and maggot infested living conditions. Butterball provides the United States with about 13 million turkeys each Thanksgiving. This severe mistreatment paints a dark stain on the thankful meal shared with family, close friends, and customers. Donald’s Terrapin Farms is just one example of the importance of small farms, where “humanely raised” actually means something. For the last 15 years, Donald has preserved his principles and has become a treasured part in the Greenbrier Valley.
Thanksgiving brings Donald many customers along with closer bonds with his students. Customers are encouraged to visit the turkey farm. Donald also takes turkeys to Davis Stuart to teach his students about farming. He tells us that as a local farmer, it is so rewarding to put people and his students in touch with the animals they eat. It delivers a more full-scale appreciation on all angles.
Donald tells us his biggest challenge on the production side of turkey farming is predators. He says, “The birds are loose behind an electric net fence. It is effective, but there is little that could stop a determined foe, bear, pack of dogs, etc. I lost 11 this year at one time, but I have gone years without losing any, so you take your chances. He also discusses the biggest challenge on the customer side is the customer’s requested bird size. Donald says, “A turkey over 20 lbs is difficult as is one under 14. Thankfully, my customers are empathetic and this is seldom a major issue. I offer small, medium, and large.”
Regardless of the obstacles, Donald tells us that turkey farming is all worth it. He says the consistency of the meat, the texture or the “bite” as it is sometimes referred to between a store-bought bird and a free-range bird is noticeable. “My turkeys eat a large amount of grass and the whole grain they consume gives them a rich yellow fat and incredibly tasty broth.” He goes on to say that, “Likewise, because my birds are raised outside and run all over the place, they have extremely well developed legs. The down side is this lean muscle can become tough if cooked at a high temperature quickly. ‘Slow and low’ is the key. (about 20 degrees lower and an hour longer).”
A free-range, real turkey is one of the most-tasty imaginable. So make this Thanksgiving extra special with a local bird from Donald’s Terrapin Farms in Renick. You must pre-order your bird as soon as possible. Donald will butcher the bird on the farm the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, which is November 21st. Your turkey will be available for pick up after 3pm. The bird will be freshly packaged. Donald offers flexibility for restaurants and wholesalers. Call Donald at 304-667-6008 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
– HashtagWV #95. November 2017.