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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! 2010 Turkey Edition

Whether you're going with turkey or tofurky this Thanksgiving, it is encouraging to witness the uptick in interest around organics, heritage breeds, and hand-raised birds. Ultimately, vibrant local food systems are the safest, most resilient and sustainable. To that end, we present three articles on these new paradigm in turkey culture, each of which provide a bit of a peak into the still dominant factory farming system.

Organics: Californians Gobble Fresh Turkey
While most Americans nationwide opt for the frozen kind, the allure of a fresh, organic bird has grown in recent years.

Wading through a knee-high sea of wattles and beaks, Mary Pitman shouts above waves of gobbles to rattle off the names of turkey breeds on her family farm in the San Joaquin Valley. She points out the Narragansett, the white Holland and the standard bronze — birds that Americans have eaten since the days of the founding fathers.

Pitman Family Farms — which produces the Mary's Free Range Turkey brand — sold out of Thanksgiving birds several months ago. The flock percolating around Pitman is reserved for Christmas. But customers are still willing to go to great lengths for a last-minute grab at her fresh, organic birds for the November holiday.

"I had one guy that offered to fly from Las Vegas in his private jet to get one of my turkeys," Pitman said. "But I told him we were all sold out."

Despite economic hardships and shrinking overall turkey production in the U.S., the allure of a fresh, organic turkey has grown in recent years. Farmers and industry experts attribute the increasing demand, particularly in California, to the health-conscious culture, the popularity of the anti-agribusiness sentiment found in the documentary "Food Inc." and the movement for locally grown food. Or maybe it's just simple nostalgia for a classic holiday feast.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said that when it comes to Thanksgiving in California, "people are willing to pay more to get more." He said not only that consumption of fresh turkey in California has grown 5% in the last five years or so, but also that about 90% of the turkey sold in California stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas would be fresh.

Read full article here.

Heritage Breeds: Worth the Cost?

American shoppers expect to pay more for foods raised without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and antibiotics. But when it comes to the Thanksgiving turkey the price differential understandably raises some eyebrows, with many supermarkets offering frozen commodity turkeys for around $1.50 a pound while a heritage bird costs around $7 a pound. Many consumers, especially if they haven't tasted a heritage turkey, wonder whether that splurge is really worth it.

We are purveyors of naturally raised heritage turkeys, and it will come as no surprise that we feel they are worth every penny. The dozens of chefs and customers who've told us that ours was the best-tasting turkey they'd ever eaten would likely agree. The short answer is, "You get what you pay for." For a meatier response, read on.

First, in many ways the commodity turkey is artificially cheap. In the immediate sense, industrial methods do lower production costs. These include intensive crowding in metal confinement buildings; minimal human care, made possible by total confinement and mechanized feed and water systems; and reliance on cheap feeds (often including slaughterhouse wastes and a panoply of pharmaceuticals). Government subsidies and lax enforcement of environmental laws also enable (and cheapen) industrial food production. The result of this system is water, air, and soil polluted by agricultural waste; meat with high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and animal suffering on an unprecedented scale. Although these costs don't show up on our grocery receipts, they are real and, ultimately, we all pay them.

On the flip side, it's simply more expensive to raise turkeys naturally, especially heritage birds. The modern turkey (the Broad-Breasted White) has been selected generation after generation for two main traits: white meat and fast growth. The oversized breasts of the Broad-Breasted White render it incapable of flight or natural mating. As it matures, it has difficulty walking. The heritage turkey, on the other hand, is closely related to its wild ancestors; it is heartier, healthier, and capable of natural mating, running, and flying. This enables farms raising heritage turkeys to raise them without drugs. It also makes them more work to raise.

Like their wild cousins, heritage birds grow at a pace set by nature. Heritage turkeys typically take almost twice as much time to reach maturity as Broad-Breasted Whites. From a farming standpoint, the growth rate has enormous economic consequences. Double the maturation time means double the cost for feed, labor, and overhead (like maintenance of buildings and waterlines). It also means a lost opportunity to raise more turkeys and that each animal has more opportunities to get sick, be injured, or die prematurely. These differences result in much of the price gap.

Hand-Raised Locally: Portrait of a Centerpiece
Jamie Collins has been hanging out with her Thanksgiving meal since May. Owner of Serendipity Farms, Collins is based in Aromas and pays the bills with produce, but approaching her chicken coop sparks the unhinged gobbling of six full-grown turkeys. It would be nine, except her dog killed one and two died in infancy, and she’s about to knock off three of the remainders for gravy and stuffing.

It’s an experiment that will culminate in substituting over-the-counter Thanksgiving turkeys with her own farm-fresh organic birds, tended carefully along every step of their maturation, slaughter and baking.

“I feel like if I eat meat I should be learning how to do it myself and feeling the feelings,” Collins says. “I feel empowered by it, to be able to do that.”

What started out as $3 Broad-breasted Bronze chicks ate their way into 40-pound beats, and behind malignant eyes and psychedelic dinosaur heads fans plumage big as Dolly Parton’s hair.
The Bronze-breasted is a commercial variety bred to fulfill demands for white meat, so although they are fed completely on organic grains, bugs and veggies , feathers aren’t the only things resembling Dolly.

“Their breasts are huge,” Collins says. “Want to feel them?”

A Trader Joe’s 30-pound thanksgiving hen costs about $40, but Collins shelled out $100 per bird and seven months of labor. The small flock was fed on $30 of feed a week in addition to leftover vegetables, and over the course of their lives cost a total of around $700—big eaters for big spenders.

“If I were to sell one of the big guys it would probably be between $175 and $200, and that’s probably making barely $50 on them just because of the cost of it all,” Collins calculates. “It’s crazy that it’s gone to that point where everybody thinks everything is so expensive when it’s done right and actually priced correctly. People ask me, ‘Can I get a really good organic turkey for around $50?’ No.

Read full article here.

Economics: Talking Turkey on Inflation

35%: The increase in the price of whole turkeys, from their pre-recession level
Consumer prices in the U.S. are broadly stable. But for people prone to worry about inflation, this could be a harrowing Thanksgiving.

Thanks to rising feed costs, falling stockpiles and developing-world consumers’ growing demand for meat, the price of a whole turkey has taken flight. The U.S. city average stood at $1.68 per pound in October, according to the Labor Department. That’s up 13.3% from a year earlier, and 35.1% from three years earlier, before the recession hit.

The case of turkey prices illustrates an important point at a time when the debate over inflation and the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy has been heating up: There can be a difference between what matters for the Fed and what any given individual experiences. And because of the way consumers tend to perceive inflation, politicians who complain about it will almost always find plenty of people who agree with them.

Read the full article here.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 8:58 PM

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