By Isaac Bonnell
More than any other month, November is reserved for the turkey.
For Geoff and Anna Martin, owners of Osprey Hill Farm in Acme, November also signifies the end of another season of raising heritage turkeys.
“Our whole year is geared toward Thanksgiving,” Anna said.
Besides raising 60 turkeys this year, the Martins also raise ducks and chickens and have a very large vegetable garden on their 15-acre farm. They bought the property five years ago with the goal of farming and raising chickens — they now have about 450 in total — but turkeys quickly became part of the picture.
“We started with six chickens and then fell in love with birds in general,” Anna said. “So we got turkeys.”
The Martins didn’t want just regular turkeys, though, so they chose heritage turkeys, which are more closely related to wild turkeys. Compared to the broad breasted white that is raised for commercial production, heritage breeds such as Bourbon reds and white Hollands are smaller in size. At table weight, they range from 8 to 15 pounds.
“The heritage turkey has a more even distribution of meat and a lot of dark meat,” Anna said.
Raising heritage turkeys requires a longer commitment than raising standard turkeys, as it takes them seven months to reach table weight. Commercial breeds reach table weight in half that time.
Heritage turkeys are also prodigious foragers, Geoff said. Every few weeks, Geoff relocates the turkey pen so that they always have fresh grass to scratch.
“We haven’t had to mow the lawn all year,” he said.
A 3-foot-tall mesh fence, though, isn’t enough to keep turkeys from roaming wild. Since the heritage breeds weigh less than the commercial breeds, which are bred to produce more breast meat, they can fly much better than their Butterball cousins.
“It’s surprising how well they can fly,” Geoff said. “One almost got on the house the other day.”
‘They need a mom’
As first-generation farmers, the couple has no formal training at running a farm or raising turkeys, Anna said. She grew up in Mukilteo and he grew up in Utah. They met in college and after graduating, decided they wanted to be farmers.
“For two kids with science degrees and pipe dreams, it’s been a lot of hard work, Anna said. “Neither of us had any business training. I didn’t think I’d be managing a business and employees. We thought of all the romantic elements of it, not the 16-hour days.”
Learning how to raise turkeys hasn’t been easy. Unlike chickens, which seem to instinctively know how to eat, drink and take care of themselves, turkeys need to be taught how to survive. But Anna insists that they are not stupid, as is commonly thought. They just need a role model.
“They need a mom, which isn’t true with chickens,” she said. “Turkeys really thrive on that mentor role and will follow you around.”
When the Martins first started raising turkeys, Anna tried everything she could think of to get the young birds to eat and drink. She put the food and water in different locations, different bowls, at different times of day. Still, they didn’t seem to recognize their food or water — until Anna taught them.
“There aren’t any books on raising heritage turkeys, so it’s really been trial and error,” she said. “They’re also very fragile birds when they’re young. I think that’s why farmers tend to stay away from raising them. They have a high mortality rate when they’re young.”
Once they learn to function on their own, turkeys become very curious. They’ll walk right up to a complete stranger and peck at buttons, pen caps, camera lenses and shoe laces, all the while trying to stay out of arm’s reach.
Being surrounded by 40 turkeys, you can tell that there is something different about them. They almost act like pets.
“They’re very personable,” Geoff said.
“But we learned early on to raise them as meat birds, not as pets,” Anna added.
About a week before Thanksgiving, the Martins will round up the turkeys and one-by-one, do the deed. The turkeys will then be plucked and frozen and ready for delivery.
Since the Martins raise a limited number of birds each year, you usually have to call early to reserve one. This year, all of the birds are already spoken for, Anna said.
Josh Silverman, owner and chef at Nimbus, was lucky enough to get four of the few remaining birds. Earlier this summer, Silverman added chicken from Osprey Hill Farm to the menu and was so impressed with it that he decided to try their turkey, too.
“We’ve never been open for Thanksgiving before and I’m just now in the planning stage of the menu,” he said. “We’ll probably do an herb-brined turkey breast with stuffing and maybe some wild mushrooms.”
One thing Silverman said he really likes about Osprey Hill Farm is that they are dedicated to raising chickens and turkeys.
“There aren’t too many people out there who are raising enough birds to supply a restaurant,” he said.
After five years of business, Anna and Geoff said they finally feel like the whole operation has started to hit its stride.
“Our biggest challenge is to streamline everything,” Geoff said. “We have so many different things going on — it’s turned into something where we have something to do all the time.”
But the days are getting shorter now. The harvest is over and pretty soon there won’t be turkeys to take care of, either. On Thanksgiving, the Martins will sit down to a hearty meal and celebrate the changing of seasons.
“Last year, we grew almost all of the food on the table,” Geoff said.
“It really puts the meaning back in the holiday,” Anna added.
Where to find heritage turkeys in Whatcom County
Osprey Hill Farm: Located in Acme, this farm raises about 60 turkeys a year. Call early to reserve one. (360) 595-9134
Dandy Chicken: Chad Baron just started raising turkeys this year and plans to continue doing so. (360) 303-8996
Misty Meadows Farm: Mark and Melissa Moeller have raised turkeys for several years and are just now establishing a breeding flock. They plan to sell baby turkeys in the spring to people interested in raising their own bird. (360) 312-3554