By Holly Riddle
Raising turkeys in preparation for the Thanksgiving season comes with its challenges in the Adirondacks and, this year, those challenges have multiplied. In the past, regional families might have sourced their holiday birds from more than a half-dozen local farms, but those options — and, in some cases, the overall number of turkeys available at each farm — are dwindling.
On a normal year, Courtney Grimes-Sutton of Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville, says raising turkeys requires a range of logistical considerations. This is the farm’s seventh year raising turkeys and it typically produces 150–175 turkeys annually.
“Turkeys are big and resilient by the time November rolls around, but we still can face tough weather in November, so we have to be prepared to bring them into the barn should we face extreme weather, and deal with frozen water lines on pasture at any given time. We wrap up other poultry production on pasture by the end of October to avoid these inconveniences, but we like to offer turkeys fresh for the Thanksgiving holiday,” she said.
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At Woven Meadows in Saranac, Josh Vaillancourt raises 40–60 turkeys per year.
He said, “Predators are the main challenge for us — mainly foxes and coyotes — but between the farm dog and giving them shelter at night, that keeps them safe. We do on-farm slaughter through the USDA exemption allowing for butchering under 1,000 chickens or 250 turkeys a year; otherwise, finding a slaughterhouse would be a challenge. There used to be one 5-A butcher about an hour away, but after a fire, they did not rebuild their poultry plant.”
In 2022, though, challenges like these joined others, such as quickly rising feed costs. “This has been a hard year, with the cost of most inputs rising significantly. The cost of grain rose quickly in 2021 and 2022, and quick changes like that are hard to bear,” Grimes-Sutton said.
Vaillancourt likewise added, “After holding steady our first eight years, the price of feed climbed 50% over the last year and a half or so, starting late in the pandemic. Since we [use] organic feed, it is now close to $0.50 per pound, and the increase in price has added around 50-70 cents per pound to our costs in feed alone. That puts our costs, not even accounting for labor, many times over the retail price of a mass-produced supermarket turkey.”
And with per-pound prices ranging from $4.50-$6.75 from farms interviewed for this story, the costs for consumer are indeed significantly higher than a store-bought bird.
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Many farmers mention feed costs as a recent hurdle. For some, the hurdle is great enough to deter them from raising turkeys altogether. Regional farms that offered turkeys last year but have passed on the opportunity in 2022 include Adirondack Beef Co., in Croghan, citing a bird flu outbreak at the beginning of the season and the high cost of feed, and Ben Wever Farm, in Willsboro. Others, such as The Smith Farm, in Massena, limited the number of turkeys raised to account for rising costs. Cathy Smith said the farm has already sold out of turkeys for the holiday, though the farm did reduce its number of turkeys raised by about half in 2022.
Still, despite the challenges, some area farmers aren’t giving up on including turkeys among their livestock, but they rely on regional support to continue.
“We will continue to raise turkeys as long as there’s a market willing to pay a much higher cost than those offered by the large grocery stores,” said Aaron Caiazza of Kate Mountain Farm in Vermontville. Caiazza raised turkeys each year for five years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then, in 2022, resumed turkey raising with a small flock of 50 birds. He plans to increase that number by as much as double if he sees market demand.
Caiazza added, “What better way of showing support for your local community [and] environment than by placing a locally raised bird on the table for everyone to enjoy?”
For farmers like Grimes-Sutton, turkeys could also play a role in adjusting for changes in the overall food system due to extreme weather and shifts in supply chains. She said, “Turkeys may continue to play a role in our farm’s adaptive agriculture in the future, because they are a vigorous bird that does well here, foraging very effectively on our plant and insect kingdoms. If we decide to work with perennial fruit crops, turkeys could play a great part in managing the understory for part of the season, for example, fertilizing and keeping the grass down. We could opt to raise them for a longer time, with less grain in their diet.”
Farms are still accepting orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, some as late as Nov. 20. See this post by Adirondack Harvest on the Adirondack Almanack with specific details for area farms.
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Where do they get the turkeys?