It’s a stunning late autumn day in Franklin, North Carolina. The sun is setting over the hillsides at Winding Stair Farm, and while the mountains are in shadow, the pasture glows in the afternoon light.
I’m walking down the gravel path with Stacy Bredendieck, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Greg Mullins. We walk past ducks and some Icelandic sheep, until we see turkeys in the distance.
These turkeys have lived on the farm since they were two days old, and now that they’re full grown, they spend all day flying over fences and foraging on the five acres. But getting them inside their habitat—or “turkey-tat” as Stacy calls it—is no easy task. Livestock manager Olivia Hedden does it every night.
“We actually have a big PVC pipe over there, or two wooden sticks. We kind of have to come up behind them and group them all together and try to herd them into the turkey-tat,” Oliva says.
“I think they’re very social,” Stacy adds. “Did you see how they came up to us when we came and opened the fence? And when we had builders over at the mill site, they would fly over two or three fences to get over there. I think they’re just very curious animals.”
The turkeys are a delight to spend time with. Their gobbles seem to punctuate every joke, and pretty soon we’re all laughing at their antics.
Yet these turkeys are more than entertaining. They’re heritage breeds, which means they were bred over generations to have traits that make them well-adapted to outdoor environments—traits like good foraging skills and and being able to fly to safety. Unlike modern breeds, their genetics go back generations, like the Narragansett variety, which was recognized in 1874. But with the rise of turkeys that are bred to grow faster and live indoors, many heritage breeds are in danger of disappearing.
This motivates farmers like Stacy and Greg, who raise about 30 Narragansett and Royal Palm turkeys at the farm. “We want to keep the heritage varieties going. We do the same thing with our ducks. We just try to keep those breeds in circulation,” Stacy says.
Raising heritage turkeys on open pasture is more labor-intensive and costs more than raising conventional breeds indoors.
“It’s not only the cost of the baby, which they’re very expensive to start with. I think they’re 20 dollars each. And then you’ve got six to eight months of raising them, and Olivia’s time every night to herd them back. I mean, turkeys take a lot of a lot of time and they eat a lot of food. Even being pasture-raised, they’re eating bugs and grass all day long, and they still go through a lot of feed,” she says.
Stacy has a plan to reduce feed costs next year. “We get all of our feed, all organic, soy-free, from Reedy Fork Farm. But our plan next year, if you see through the trees, that’s where we’re building a grist mill and we plan on doing our own feed and and selling it bulk as well. So we’ll have local, organic feed for this area,” she says.
Since Stacy and Greg bought the property in 2010 and expanded the farm in 2013, they’ve seen Franklin and the far west counties of Western North Carolina embrace local food.
“This area of Western North Carolina is really becoming a food destination. When Greg and I first moved here, there was maybe one restaurant that was open past 7 p.m. And I think a lot of people are moving here to grow food and who are interested in food. We have a new coffee roaster and people are doing goat’s cheese and things like that. And that’s really encouraging. Even though we’re a lot of small farms, I think it’s making a lot of food more available to a larger market so that people are expecting to pay a real price for real food. And I think that helps all of us who are in farming and also all of us who want to eat real food,” she says.
Like a lot of local turkey farms, all of Winding Stair’s turkeys are reserved for this Thanksgiving. Stacy recommends joining the farm’s mailing list, where they’ll announce registration early next fall. That goes for any turkey farm that grows a limited number of turkeys each year.
It takes a little planning to find a local turkey, but Stacy hopes that customers get a lot out of the experience of having it on their Thanksgiving table.
“I think the people who are interested in buying food from this farm are really interested in the idea of locally-raised food. It’s humanely-raised, locally-raised, organically-raised. I think that there’s the story of us personally looking after these birds all year long, and it’s a way to have a bird that’s had a great life and and a good end. One of our things is we process our birds on site so they’re not traveling somewhere. They live here and they’re well cared for all the way through,” she says.
Find plenty of ideas for having a local Thanksgiving, including vegetarian main dishes and sides that feature local produce, at www.fromhere.org
Aired: November 25, 2019