Have you already ordered your Thanksgiving bird? If not, consider Amy Cotler’s sound reasons for going the farm-fresh route. Not sure where to find turkey-raisers in your area? Local Harvest offers this handy search tool for local farms committed to small-scale food production. 

Bourbon Red Turkey Tom. Photo by Mtshad.

Try a real turkey this holiday, or anytime at all. Farm fresh turkeys are a different bird entirely from the standard factory-farmed frozen turkeys, which are raised as quickly as possible in tight living quarters. They’re raised for their white meat and are often injected with a solution to make them juicier and more flavorful. Conventionally raised large birds can be moist and tender, but they can also be mushy or off-flavor. Breeds are chosen for commercial reasons only. The producers don’t have the time or food necessary to develop great bird flavor.
Alternatively, farm-fresh turkeys bring with them a real story of your regional farm and can have a distinctive flavor as well. They’re more expensive, but they are well worth it. You’ll find two tiers on the expense ladder. On the less-expensive tier are regional turkeys that are fresh, not frozen. These may or may not be organic, and you should check with your farm about whether they use additives, antibiotics, or growth hormones. I’ve bought and enjoyed plenty of these.
Up the dollar ladder substantially are heritage turkeys, with breeds like Bourbon Reds that descended from the first turkeys in America. Heritage breeds (and sometimes conventional breeds) are allowed to roam freely and forage for some or all of their food. They have a deeper flavor and a firmer texture. And no additives, growth hormones, or antibiotics are added.
Note that organic birds, heritage breeds or not, are even more expensive, but some say they are well worth the outlay. Organic growers abide by a specific set of USDA rules. The turkeys have to be free of pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and certain unnatural substances and processing techniques. They also have to be fed only organic feed. Having said that, if I have to choose, I generally choose local over organic.
Sadly, like so many, both of my local turkey farms went out of the turkey-raising business, but they still buy fresh birds from regional farms. Buying from these farms keeps them alive. I like to buy a big bird, because you can’t beat the leftovers. In fact, we do a big turkey dinner several times a year, in part because I love to play with the leftovers and the flavorful turkey stock made from simmering the carcass. That stock cures any winter cold.
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Amy Cotler, author of The Locavore Way, is the founding director of Berkshire Grown, a food initiative internationally recognized as a model for local farm and food advocacy. Cotler worked as the Web food forum host for The New York Times, and her articles have appeared in numerous periodicals , including Fine Cooking, Kitchen Garden, Cook’s, Self, Gastronomique, and Orion. She is the author of five cookbooks, including Fresh from the Farm: The Massachusetts Farm to School Cookbook, which is available free online. She lives in western Massachusetts.

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