Turkey farmers prepare for holidays

William Bradley, 17, a volunteer with Wholesome Conversions Farm in Weirsdale, feeds the farm’s turkeys. The farm harvested about 200 birds this year but raised more to start a flock.

Floridians are getting ready to gobble up locally raised turkeys. With just days to go before Thanksgiving, Florida’s farmers are preparing for the rush of holiday revelers interested in cooking farm-raised turkeys for the holiday. Many of them are sold already, including the 128 turkeys raised this year at Pasture Prime Family Farm in Summerfield. At least one farm is preparing for next year. Scott and Melanie Moore at Wholesome Conversions Farm in Weirsdale are raising a species called Bourbon Red, aiming to breed them to start a flock of their own on the farm. “We don’t have to get off the farm to get that breed of turkeys anymore,” Scott Moore said.

Bourbon Reds, a heritage breed named for its origin of Bourbon County, Kentucky — which also serves as the namesake for bourbon whiskey — originated in the 1800s as a cross between Buff, Bronze and White Holland turkey breeds, according to the Livestock Conservancy, a group that aims to prevent the extinction of rare and uncommon livestock species.

None of the Bourbon Reds were harvested this year.

All of the Moores’ turkeys were broad-breasted white turkeys, the standard bird raised for Thanksgiving dinners, Scott said. They’re typically harvested after about 16-20 weeks of raising them and weigh from 12-24 pounds.

He’s harvested about 200 birds this year, his fourth year raising turkeys.

At Pasture Prime, known for raising wagyu cattle, farm manager Hayden Siverson said the turkeys he and his family raised matured faster than they did in prior years, allowing for an earlier harvest weeks prior to Thanksgiving.

“They had some really good genetics, and we processed them earlier,” he said. “This was a different type of year for us.”

Siverson pre-sold all 128 of the turkeys raised this year on the farm about two weeks ago, he said.

What sets both the Moores’ and the Siversons’ farms apart from larger farms that raise poultry for supermarkets is the birds are kept in more open quarters with access to grassy areas, fresh feed and fresh water, in contrast with crowded livestock housing.

“It’s cool to see a bird act the way it’s supposed to act (in nature), as opposed to it living in a way that’s outside its normal environment,” Moore said. “They never chirp or see grass in the commercial industry.”

However, open quarters don’t come without their challenges.

Especially at night, turkeys are vulnerable to predators like foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls.

So to keep the predators away, both Wholesome Conversions and Pasture Prime employ a pack of great Pyrenees dogs to guard their turkeys. Moore said having the dogs on his farm helps him sleep easier.

Some experts acknowledge significant challenges in raising turkeys in Florida because of the hot and humid climate turkeys must brave in their early stages, as well as the prevalence of diseases that can negatively impact turkey production.

“When they came out of the forests and jungles, birds had natural, disease-resistance characteristics,” said Mark Bailey, small farms and sustainable agriculture agent with the University of Florida’s Marion County Extension Office. “As we bred them for characteristics we desire, like size and weight, it often leaves out the immune system requirements for defense against diseases.”

One of the worst of them is blackhead disease, caused by a protozoa that lives in the soil and can wipe out turkey flocks, he said. Anywhere from 70%-100% of turkeys in an infected flock may die once infected, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Luckily, neither of the local turkey farms reported disease outbreaks.

Scott Moore has taken preventative steps that include daily moves of the turkeys from one area of the farm to another, as well as putting apple cider vinegar and fresh garlic in their water, which helps strengthen their guts’ immunity.

The Moores and the Siversons not only raise an uncommon product for the tri-county region but also for Florida in general.

Florida’s turkey farms provided more than 5,100 turkeys to consumers in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture. The previous census, dated 2012, found farmers sold 2,140 turkeys that year.

In comparison, farmers in America’s most prolific turkey-producing state, Minnesota, raised 40 million turkeys in 2019, USDA data showed, which was down slightly from 42 million in 2017 and 2018.

Farmers raised more than 229 million turkeys nationwide in 2019, according to the USDA’s 2019 report on poultry production and value, issued in April. Despite a drop in production compared with 2018, the value of production was higher than the prior year, at $4.3 billion.

The USDA’s data tracked production in 13 individual states, but Florida was not one of them because of how small its harvest is compared to other states.

Yet, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that seems to matter to Floridians looking for a locally raised Thanksgiving dinner.

That’s what Siverson is noticing from local interest in turkey farms.

“Times are changing, the world is changing, people are changing,” he said. “And people are starting to notice ... when they taste this local, better-grown meat and they remember how a turkey or a chicken or a steak tastes like when they were a kid.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.