The short, happy lives of Pagett Farm turkeys

By Ethan Andrews | Nov 17, 2010
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Donald Barrett holds one of the 130 turkeys he and his wife, Pam Page, raise at Pagett Farm in Palermo.

Palermo — On Thanksgiving, thousands of turkeys will appear on, and disappear from, tables around Maine. And while most of these birds will hail from industrial farms halfway across the country — Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina are big turkey exporters — around 100 Thanksgiving turkeys will come from Pagett Farm, a small, family-run business in Palermo.

Pam Page and Donald Barrett — the name of the farm is a portmanteau of their last names — raised 130 turkeys for Thanksgiving this year, fattening them on organic feed and allowing them to roam in an outdoor pen alongside Route 3. The turkeys cost more than the store variety, but according to Page and Barrett, there’s a market for the locally-raised birds.

All are Broad Breasted Whites, the most common breed for commercially produced turkey, and one they settled on after several years of trying to raise a variety of “heritage” breeds, which more closely resemble their wild counterparts.

The problem with the wild-type turkeys was that they were wild.

“They’re very good flyers and very good runners,” Barrett said. “Trying to keep them for a farm product is very difficult. I’d find them in the trees.”

A product of industrialized agriculture in the 1960s, Broad Breasted Whites were specifically bred for the dinner table. As it turns out, some of the traits that give them shelf appeal have also made them easier to care for.

The aptly-named birds have more white meat than their wild counterparts and the extra heft up front renders them flightless.

They grow larger and they do it faster — Barrett described them as “efficient processors of grain” — and their white pinfeathers are easier to remove and less visible than the black ones of wild turkeys. They also don’t go out of their way to escape, though Barrett said they don’t necessarily know enough to get out of the rain, either.

“They’re pretty dumb,” he said, without a trace of mockery.

Moments earlier, a car had passed on nearby Route 3 emitting a steady squeal, like from a loose fan belt. The birds had responded in unison with a flurry of excited ululations. Like goldfish, they seemed to be aware of the promise of food, following Barrett in a flock as he moved through the half-acre pen.

Though majestic in their way — the mature males develop a subtle blue coloration on their faces that stands out against their white feathers and knobby, red head, neck and wattle — Barrett’s comment seemed to go without saying.

Page and Barrett have been raising turkeys for seven years, and for the last two years have dealt exclusively in Broad Breasted Whites.

The annual cycle goes like this: In late August or early September, the babies, called “poults,” arrive by mail — Broad Breasted Whites can’t reproduce naturally, so farmers like Barrett and Page must buy the poults each year from a facility that breeds them by artificial insemination.

During their first few weeks at Pagett Farm, they are kept in a brooding house — a small, heated shed — and given special feed. As they mature, they are allowed into a small pen that is gradually expanded to allow the free-range turkeys room to grow.

And grow they do.

By November, some of the turkeys — feathers, feet and head — weigh 40 pounds. The birds are processed on the Saturday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, so they don’t need to be frozen.

The processing happens in Monmouth at a 25-member cooperative slaughterhouse. It’s the only “Inspected Poultry” processing facility in the state, meaning each head of poultry is checked by an inspector. The other five facilities recognized by the state’s Maine Red Meat and Poultry Inspection Program hold USDA “Custom Exempt” status, under which the facility itself is inspected once a year, but otherwise left to the oversight of the operator.

Barrett said the latter system encourages cutting corners on health and safety.

“Like everybody driving by at 70 miles per hour,” he said, pointing to the cars passing on Route 3. The road cuts an imposing swath between the house and the turkey pasture, not far from either. Each passing car made a dramatic swoosh.

“If there’s a police officer sitting there, they’d be going 55,” he said.

But having each bird inspected is also much more expensive — processing alone for each Pagett Farm turkey costs as much as the retail price of a frozen turkey — from $8 to $25, according to weight.

And that’s just the beginning, or the end, of the cost. The poults cost $6 apiece, and the brooder they inhabit must be kept warm with a propane heater. Collectively the birds will consume around $2,000 in organic feed during their brief lives. And, as is the case at any farm, Barrett and Page have to factor in the possibility that some birds won’t survive.

For the final product — a ready-to-bake turkey — Pagett Farm charges $4.50 per pound, of which, Barrett said, the profit margin is around 50 to 60 cents.

Supermarkets regularly offer frozen turkeys for less than $1 per pound — an artificially low price, since turkeys are often priced as a loss leader, but nonetheless, inexpensive. So, why would someone pay $4.50 per pound?

“They’re raised in the wide open where they can act like turkeys. They’re not confined to a barn. They eat grass and they’re given healthy feed with no chemicals,” Barrett said.

He also noted that people are starting show more interest in locally-produced food, in part because the money stays in the community. The farm typically sells out of Thanksgiving turkeys, he said, and many of the farm’s customers return year after year.

“I tell everybody, if you don’t like it, bring it back,” he said. “I’ll give your money back and buy you a turkey from Hannaford.”

He took a beat to let the statement sink in.

“In seven years I’ve never had to honor that guarantee,” he said.

To order a turkey from Pagett Farm, call 993-2500 or e-mail info@pagettfarm.com.

 

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