Free-range turkeys gobbling up the Thanksgiving market

ON THE FARM

October 29, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

David Smith and his family are gearing up for the big Thanksgiving rush.

Smith is owner of Springfield Farm, in the Sparks section of Baltimore County, a family-run turkey farm dating to the 1600s. It is one of 18 operations listed in a directory published last week by the state Department of Agriculture of farms producing fresh turkeys and selling directly to the public.

Smith says he will sell 650 free-range turkeys this year; the bulk of them will move out the weekend before Thanksgiving. He said about 90 percent of his turkey customers come to the farm to pick up the centerpiece of their holiday feast.

"People line up," he said. "There are cars everywhere. We have one customer who comes from upper New Jersey. Others come from as far away as Roanoke, Va."

They come looking for fresh, free-range turkeys, one of the fastest growing niches in the gobbler market.

The birds at Springfield Farm are not caged, but they are fenced in. They roam the grounds nibbling on weeds, bugs and worms to supplement their diet of grain.

"It's close to the way the birds live in the wild," said Smith. "And people like that. They say the meat tastes better, and it's not as tough."

In a move that seeks to more closely imitate what the Pilgrims ate at the original Thanksgiving dinner, Springfield Farm also offers what people in the industry call "heritage turkeys."

He said the heritage birds "are more like the wild turkeys. They are growing in popularity. They are smaller and have less white meat, but the flavor is much more intense."

`Not cheap'

"They are not cheap," Smith said of the heritage turkeys, which sell for $5 a pound, compared with $3.50 a pound for the farm's more traditional free-range turkeys, which are similar in appearance to those carried by most grocery stores.

Smith said he first raised 50 heritage turkeys in 2001 at the request of a Baltimore restaurant. The demand has increased to the point that they now account for about half the turkeys on the farm.

Maryland farmers grew 800,000 turkeys last year, according to the Agriculture Department. This is nearly double the 440,000 raised in 2000.

That's a tiny fraction of total U.S. production - 256.3 million turkeys last year, down slightly from the 264.2 million the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota is the nation's leading turkey-producing state, according to the National Turkey Federation, a Washington-based trade association. Farmers there raised 44.5 million birds last year.

North Carolina is No. 2, followed by Arkansas and Virginia. Virginia farmers raised 21 million turkeys last year. Pennsylvania was No. 8 on the federation's list. Farmers there raised 11.5 million turkeys last year.

Sherrie Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for the federation, said that Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two biggest holidays for turkey sales, "but people eat turkey all year long. It's not just for Thanksgiving anymore."

Varied uses

And it is not just for dinner anymore. She said turkey is being made into sausage and even snack food, including turkey jerky.

Per capita consumption of turkey in the United States rose from about eight pounds in 1970 to a peak of about 18 pounds in 1996. Last year, the average per-person consumption was 16.7 pounds of turkey.

The Department of Agriculture's "Maryland Turkey Farms" directory lists farms in nine counties that raise and sell turkeys of all types and sell directly to consumers. The list includes farms in Baltimore, Howard, Cecil, Frederick, St. Mary's, Washington, Prince George's, Calvert and Charles counties.

No endorsements

Kate Wagner, a spokeswoman for the department, said the directory was not intended as an endorsement of any particular business, and said the department was not certain that its list included all farms selling directly to consumers. She said farmers could be added to the list by calling the department at 410-841- 5770.

A copy of the turkey farm list is available at the department's Web site: www.mda.state.md.us.

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