The sky is misty and grey, but the hills are firey with autumn color at East Fork Farm in Madison County, North Carolina. Owners Stephen and Dawn Robertson are making their way up the steep gravel driveway, like they do at least three times a day — even more in the fall as Thanksgiving gets closer.
The Robertsons are part of a growing movement of Appalachian farmers who raise turkeys the old fashioned way. Their turkeys aren’t huddled inside; they are free to roam the grassy pasture at East Fork Farm.
Up on the hill, a flock of more than one hundred turkeys peck and graze in the grass. The turkeys, now almost full grown, started their life on this farm at just two days old. Dawn and Stephen have been raising turkeys for the public for about five years, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“They’re just really a little bit tricky to raise. They’re not bright, but they’re really personable,” Dawn says as she walks over to the turkeys on the hillside. “You’ll see them. They’re going to come right up to us.”
The turkeys rush over, sounding more like a litter of puppies than big fat gobblers. “They’re very curious animals,” Dawn says. “They’re right around your feet whenever you go in there.”
The Robertsons go to great lengths to give their birds room to roam. “To me, an animal needs to be able to run, walk, have room to stretch its wings, to able to be out in the sunshine and eat bugs and foliage,” she says. “I want them to have quality of life.”
But unpredictable weather can turn even ideal living conditions into a serious situation. Dawn remembers one year when they got 12 inches of snow in September. The free-range birds got wet and the temperature dropped when the sun went down. Dawn and a farm hand carried each individual bird into the barn in the dark.
“It was worth it though,” Dawn says with a laugh. “I just don’t want to see something cold and wet.”
Stephen Robertson says that the way they raise their birds at East Fork — everything from what they eat, to where they graze, and the fact that they’re processed here on the farm — makes a difference in the quality of the meat.
“We have full control of the bird that’s going to be on someone’s table,” he says. “It’s one of the few holidays where what you cook is what it’s all about.”
One of these turkeys will be the centerpiece of the Robertson’s own Thanksgiving meal, next to potatoes and a classic green bean casserole. But making sure each of their customers has a healthy turkey for their family’s feast is what keeps Stephen and Dawn heading up the hill each morning.
“I’m proud to say I raised this bird, I processed this bird, I physically handled it and I’m going to put it on someone’s table so they can have a happy Thanksgiving,” Dawn says.
East Fork Farm will host a holiday market on the farm this week, a chance for people to pick up pre-ordered turkeys and go home with other Thanksgiving staples like sweet potatoes, carrots, and onions from Ivy Creek Family Farm, cheese from Spinning Spider Creamery, or pies and bread from Wake Robin Farm. Many of these holiday favorites can also be found at farmers markets across the region.
Coming together with farmers helps people understand where their food comes from and enriches their relationship with what they eat. Learning about how food is raised can shift the way people think about their what’s on their plate and help them understand all the effort that goes into bringing it to the table.
It’s not an easy job, but for Dawn and Stephen Robertson, raising turkeys lets them share their hard work with the community and convey the value of local food.
“When people tell you that that’s the best turkey they’ve ever eaten, that’s what really makes a difference,” Stephen says. “To me, that’s what makes it worth all this trouble.”
Information on farmers markets across the region and photos of East Fork’s turkeys can be found at www.asapconnections.org