Home before the holidays

At Springfield Farm in Sparks, turkeys roam free before turning up on the Thanksgiving table.

November 26, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The turkeys at Springfield Farm in Sparks roost occasionally in trees surrounding their grassy enclosure, or hop the low electrical fence and walk that edge of the wide world, sampling freedom. Something always brings them back, though. Perhaps it's the steady feed, or the domestic fowl's genetic pull toward home.

"I guess they kind of like it here," says David Smith, who owns the farm and raises free-range, pastured turkeys, chickens, pigs, cattle, sheep and other animals.

In the universe of turkeys bred for holiday tables, Smith's birds may be considered lottery winners. They cashed a good karmic ticket months ago, when they were poults weighing less than a decent turkey sandwich and their hatchery in Pennsylvania packed them in boxes and delivered them via priority mail into the hands of the Smith family.

For Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, the Smiths are raising nearly 300 turkeys all told, a hobbyist's pursuit compared to the country's largest turkey operations that might produce a few hundred thousand birds a year. Some people call those "factory farms."

Smith is no zealous animal advocate, nor should his family's natural pesticide-free farming be considered a political statement. He likes this approach for philosophical reasons, but it also makes practical sense, as these methods give Springfield Farm a niche market at a time when food companies ranging from McDonald's to Whole Foods Markets have announced plans to improve their standards on animal treatment.

In the rolling hills of Baltimore County, the combination of economics and animal welfare seems to be working.

You could ask the birds, and they might answer with any number of sounds. They seem at times to mimic geese or the peeping of bald eagles or the way laughter can suddenly erupt in a cluster of people at a cocktail party. Yes, they sort of gobble, but also bubble and gurgle and chirp.

Are these the sounds of happy turkeys?

It seems so, says Michael C. Appleby of the Humane Society of the United States. At Smith's invitation, Appleby led a group of Humane Society board members on a tour of Springfield Farm in September. They liked what they saw, says Appleby, who heads the society's division of farm animals and sustainable agriculture.

If animals are going to be raised for food, says Appleby, "that's the way they should be kept. That's ideal."

He's talking about the ample space, the outdoor life, the fact that the birds have clean ground - all of which makes these turkeys luckier than their counterparts on the high-production farm.

To visit the turkeys - Smith welcomes the public, just let the folks know you're there, he says - you cross Yeoho Road from the main house and walk up a grassy slope, past a small chicken house. Keep walking east a few score yards, toward the stands of locust, maple and wild-cherry trees.

Inside an electrical fence - it looks like a loose tennis net no more than a yard high - the turkeys spend their few months of life. About every week the birds are moved to new pasture, to keep them on fresh ground, but the setup remains the same.

Other than a few dozen of the youngest birds in a smaller fenced enclosure, most of the turkeys stay in the larger pen - three-quarters of an acre furnished with feed pans, fresh water troughs and four wood-frame huts that can be covered with plastic sheets in bad weather.

The birds occupy a small fraction of their field. The rest of the ground is open - for sprinting, strutting, ambling about. With their tails fanned, their beaks tucked in, their feathery mass aloft on spindly legs, the toms can move with a dignified bearing. They might be portly butlers. The hens are built along more slender, graceful lines, their heads bobbing and weaving as if they were prizefighters.

`Heritage breeds'

Some in this crowd are your standard white variety that make up the vast majority of the 45 million turkeys that will appear on Thanksgiving tables this year. Others are reddish-brown or jet-black or dark-brown-and-black, or black-and-white-and-gray - these are the so-called "heritage breeds" that represent older varieties. The black-and-white-and-gray are Narragansetts, believed to be descendants of the turkeys the Pilgrims would have known.

They stand at a couple of arms' distance. They might come in closer, peck a bit at your pant leg or try to untie your shoelace.

"They're very curious," says Smith. Yes - curious. That suggests intelligence, not necessarily a word that tends to come up when talking about turkeys.

Just how smart are these birds? Hard to say. While there's quite a bit of research on wild-bird and domestic-chicken intelligence, not much scientific work has been done on domestic turkeys.

In his fourth year of raising the birds, Smith makes no claim to authority on avian cognition, but he's quick to dismiss the common notion that turkeys are deeply dumb. The birds respond to visitors and show some signs of personality.

Find Smith at various times of day in the enclosure, just watching the turkeys.

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