Hundred Dollar Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Our family has a tremendous amount to be thankful for this year; more on that in subsequent posts. But among other things, it seems we can be grateful that we’ll be feasting on a home-grown heritage turkey that would’ve cost well over a hundred dollars from any number of merchants.

As the New York Times reports:

Many small farmers sell their birds direct to customers for as much as $10 a pound, or 10 to 20 times the cost of a typical supermarket turkey.

That means a heritage turkey big enough for a large Thanksgiving gathering, say 18 pounds, can run $180. Even at that price, farmers who breed heritage turkeys are recording brisk sales.

Heritage turkeys are old-fashioned breeds that resemble their wild ancestors more closely than do modern breeds. Devotees say they are more flavorful and have a higher proportion of dark meat than the modern birds.

But even with high demand and prices to match, many of the producers say they are having trouble making money. That is because the old-time breeds — with names like Black Spanish and Bourbon Red — take longer and cost far more to raise than their modern competition, a turkey breed known as the Broad-Breasted White. Broad-breasted turkeys grow quickly, have lots of white meat and are docile enough that they can easily be mass-produced in large-scale poultry operations.

The whole piece gives some excellent background about heritage turkeys, and the market for them — but also explains why, despite the prices some are willing to pay, it remains difficult to make much money raising these birds. The poults are very expensive, and you’ll pay a lot of money to have them processed at a USDA-inspected facility.

Still, we find raising the heritage breeds to be very rewarding. They are special birds, and provide a truly unique eating experience that isn’t available in stores. If you’re really serious about going into this business, you’ll do like some of our friends in Illinois: they keep breeding stock, incubate and hatch their own eggs, do the processing on-farm, and only sell directly to consumers who pick the birds up from the farm. This way, they capture many of the dollars that otherwise would go to hatcheries, shippers, butchers, and so forth.

As for us, we’ll be enjoying a 15# Blue Slate tom turkey this year. And giving thanks we were able to raise it ourselves — and not paying $150 for the privilege.

Henny Penny Gets a New Nest

Last month we had a Buff Orpington hen go broody, and (despite the worsening weather) to allow her to try hatching a dozen eggs. Her nest was in an area of the barn that a lot of other chickens had access to. Unfortunately, over the course of the next week or so, a number of those other hens got into her nest and laid some eggs of their own. When I checked back on it, she had 17 in total. That’s a lot of eggs to keep warm, and those laid after the initial dozen would have different hatch dates. Plus, looking ahead, assuming she did manage to hatch some chicks, I wanted her to have a more secure place to tend and feed those chicks.

The best solution was to move one of our 4′ x 8′ chicken pasture pens in from the garden, and put it on a tarp in the upstairs portion of the barn. There are no animals (other than barn cats, as Homeschooled Farm Girl just pointed out to me) upstairs; it is just a hayloft and basketball court. I then covered the tarp with a good layer of straw, and set up a 5 gallon waterer. I also filled a feeder with grain, and then Henny Penny’s new condo was all set. (This, incidentially, is the same way we brooded the large numbers of baby birds we got from the hatchery in the spring — but with a heat lamp instead of a mother hen.)

I went back downstairs, and then carefully nabbed the (indignantly clucking) Henny Penny and put her eggs into a box with styrofoam peanuts. With the hen under one arm, and the box under the other, I made my way upstairs. Once the eggs were arranged into a new nest, I set her down next to it. After another several indignant and scolding clucks, Henny Penny carefully climbed onto the eggs and made herself comfortable.

Finally, I put a lid on the pen to keep her in and any troublemaking barn cats out. With all that feed and water, I knew she wouldn’t need any further attention from me for quite some time.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the chicks have begun hatching. There appear to be three little peepers so far, but she’s keeping them very much under her fluffed-out feathers ao it’s hard to tell for sure.

Stay tuned!

Geese

Geese are wonderful farm birds. Although goslings are fairly expensive, the finished birds get to a nice weight — and, most importantly, they can do it with relatively little grain. Our geese spend almost all of their time out in the pasture, eating little other than grass. They do swipe some grain from the egg laying hens, when they’re locked in the barn at night, but we’re fine with that. Grain helps the geese put on a little more weight — and, most importantly, develop a nice layer of fat.

A woman from Ohio writes with some questions, after having raised her first batch of geese; I sent her a personal response, but in so doing realized that her note (and my reply) would be worth sharing with all of my readers. With her permission, here is her question and my response [I have edited both a bit]:

Hello, This is my first year raising geese. I have the Pilgrim breed. Being that I am so new to this, did I wait too long to butcher them at 7 months? Would they have been OK to process at 6 months? The processor was concerned about them not having pin feathers, which they didn’t. But would they have grown out their pin feathers at 6 months or sooner? My birds have free access to pasture (in with steer) and also to free-choice mixed grains with 1/3 pellets mixed in. Do you think that I should not have offered them the grains during the peak pasture season (on unimproved, possibly less palatable, pasture)?

We did pilgrims once; they are a nice-sized bird, and have the unusual trait of being naturally sex-linked; in other words, the males and females can be distinguished by the color of their feathers. Pilgrims also have a reputation for being good natural mothers, which also appealed to us. Unfortunately, they turned out to be “too good” at mothering, and made nests out in the yard…where they got picked off by predators. In the years since, we gave up on trying to get geese to hatch their own goslings — and stuck with Embdens, because they get larger faster. And they have a nicer temperament than some other breeds (like White Chinese).

The writer’s time frame for butchering is perfectly fine. We raise them to the same age she did; I just butchered a bunch, myself. They’re delicious at this age. If she’d waited until next spring, that’s when they’d start to get tough. I wouldn’t have expected pin feathers at the age she butchered them. The geese may have been okay to eat at 6 months, but my opinion is “the bigger the better.” I have three more that we’re keeping alive, to butcher for eating fresh at Christmas. They’ll be 9 months old then, but in our experience that’s always been fine.

Our geese are mostly out in pasture with the sheep, but get some supplemental grain when they steal it from the laying hens in the barn. We keep them separate much of the time, but geese definitely have a mind of their own. As long as they’re mostly on pasture, grain is good for their development, and helps them reach a bigger size. I think it also helps them develop some fat — which is absolutely wonderful when it melts off a slow-roasted goose, and can be used for cooking potatoes or spread on bread. The only reason we don’t give them more grain is the expense of it. We have a huge pasture, and the geese love grass, so we figure we’re saving money by letting them graze it. We also have a naturally wet, semi-swampy area in the pasture that they enjoy.

The writer indicated that she had sent the geese out to a butcher for processing. In her case, that makes sense because her time is worth more to her than the cost of butchering (much like the calculation we have made about butchering lambs or goats.) But if you’re not too squeamish about it, I’d strongly encourage you try butchering your own birds. It doesn’t require much special equipment, and geese are still small enough to be manageable. (i.e. it’s not like butchering a cow or pig). We tie a cord around both legs, hang them from a nail or tree branch, then slit the throat and let them bleed to death. Geese bleed out very fast. The only problem with geese is that it’s hard to get all those feathers off. We find that dunking them in very hot water helps a lot to loosen those feathers. Still a chore, but we enjoy doing it ourselves.

How Much Does the Turkey Matter?

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, that question may be on many people’s minds. Kim Severson, writing in today’s NY Times about a dispute with other food writers (and the ensuing cook-off she won hands down), comes down solidly on the side of “After the Bird, Everything Else Is Secondary.”

From turkey comes stock, the flavor-giving fluid that pumps through the entire meal. Good gravy depends on good stock. So does stuffing (more on our stuffing fight in a moment). Delicious turkey does not come from a 29-cent-a-pound supermarket bird with cottony, bland breast meat. They are, as my favorite turkey breeder says, the Red Delicious apples of turkeys.

A bird that has been bred to reproduce naturally and thrive in the open develops tastier meat. I’ve eaten dozens of both, and I will swear to that basic truth on my favorite turkey platter.

There is a catch. Growing a great turkey takes time and serving one costs money. But if you can afford it, it’s the way to go.

The turkeys from Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., spend their days on pasture and get organic feed. Much attention has been paid to their husbandry. They are certified by the Humane Farm Animal Care program. True, they start at
$125. But frankly, no expense was too great in proving Moskin wrong.

It’s hard to think of a more fitting tribute to heritage breed turkeys, or a better explanation for why we continue to raise them — even though the baby poults cost twice as much and reach a finished weight of less than half of what their broad breasted supermarket cousins can get to.

The piece goes on to give some excellent tips for cooking a heritage turkey. If you plan to get one, this article would be a good “clip and save.” But hopefully you’ve already reserved yourself a turkey; most small producers sell out far in advance of Thanksgiving. And hopefully you’ll be able to pay less than the $125 that Severson had to come up with.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, for a whole host of reasons. To say that I’m looking forward to feasting on one of our Blue Slate tom turkeys later this month would be a gross understatement.

More Options on Guns

With this week marking the the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been a number of stories about the event — and some interesting stories about Communist consumer goods making a comeback. One “commie good” that has largely gone unremarked in press reports, however, is surplus military firearms and ammunition. The Eastern Bloc produced a lot of really nice weapons, and these are now available in the West at quite reasonable prices. Many gun shops only focus on newer-type firearms, and only carry the Eastern Bloc stuff if a customer sells it to them or consigns it — but, if you know where to look, picking up an old Commie gun can literally yield a lot of bang for the buck.

First, I’d like to provide a more general update about firearms. Several months ago, I put up posts with thoughts about basic guns that are useful on a farm or ranch, and about the remarkable surge in gun / ammo sales that followed the previous Presidential election. I will reiterate: every farm should have a good pump-action shotgun, preferably a 12-gauge, for home defense and predator control. A longer range rifle can also be very useful, for varmint shooting or hunting larger game, but many find they can can do just fine with a basic .22 rifle. (They are cheap, and so is the ammo.) It all depends on your circumstances, and what you think you might need to shoot. I’ve personally found that a handgun is nice to have as well; it can be easily grabbed and carried to the barn, and either mounted with a tactical light or used with one hand while the other hand holds a spotlight.

Although ammo in some popular pistol calibers, such as .380 ACP, is still quite expensive and extremely difficult to find (our local Wal-Mart and Meijer stores have been sold out for months, and our gun shop imposes a limit of one 50-round box per customer, and that box costs $26), it appears that production of semi-auto rifles and ammo has caught up with demand. The gun shops I’ve visited tend to have a good supply of both AR-style and AK-style rifles, and online dealers are again stocking bulk packages of ammo in popular calibers (other than .380 ACP, of course). One online retailer, which just a year ago was “sold out to the bare walls,” has lately been offering outstanding cut-rate deals because they are so overstocked. As they admit:

OKAY FOLKS. HERE IS THE DEAL. AFTER AN INCREDIBLE FALL AND SPRING SEASON IT HAS SLOWED DOWN HERE A GREAT DEAL. IT IS NO SECRET THAT IT GETS SLOW IN THE GUN BUSINESS IN THE SUMMER AND EVEN WITH THE THREAT OF NEW LEGISLATION, THIS YEAR SEEMS TO BE NO EXCEPTION.

TO COMPOUND THE PROBLEM OF THE SLOWNESS, WE HAD SUCH A BIG WINTER AND SPRING THAT WE HIRED EXTRA STAFF AND WE WANT TO CONTINUE TO KEEP THEM ON STAFF. AS SUCH, THE ONLY THING WE KNOW TO DO TO KEEP OUR NUMBERS UP IS TO SLASH PROFIT TO THE BONE AND SELL, SELL, SELL.

— and they are even offering 7.62×39 ammo by the pallet load, something that would’ve been unheard of just a few months ago. Yep, you can get 40,320 rounds for $7,600 (plus freight), which works out to about .19/round. Since most of us aren’t resellers, or preparing for TEOTWAWKI, they also offer 1260-round cases for $250 each. That’s not quite as cheap as buying by the pallet, but still considerably cheaper than prices earlier this year.

Which brings us back to Eastern Bloc weapons. One good source for such firearms is gun shows; one can find a dizzying array of items there that a typical gun shop would not be able to stock. But if gun shows are an impractical option, there are other sources. Classic Arms, the online retailer mentioned above, updates its website daily — and usually offers a fascinating array of firearms. They tend heavily toward AK-variant rifles, but carry the whole spectrum. I usually browse their site once a day, just for the entertainment value and to see what’s available.

One of the more interesting firearms they’re currently offering is the Draco pistol; think “sawed-off, semi-auto submachine gun version of the AK-47.” It’s not terribly accurate, and I have no need of one, but for just $350, you can get what might be the ideal survival tool if you’re ever stuck in an urban riot situation. It can be fitted with a 30 or 40-round clip of powerful 7.62×39 rifle ammo, but is as compact and maneuverable as a large pistol.

In most cases, if you want to buy a firearm from them, it is necessary to have it shipped to a FFL (Federal Firearms License) holder (typically, a local gun shop), who will complete the background check and record the transaction. This usually entails a fee of about forty bucks, but it varies from shop to shop. However, many of Classic’s guns are legally classified “Curio and Relic” — meaning anyone who has a C&R FFL can purchase such guns from them directly and have them shipped right to one’s door. I don’t have a C&R FFL, but they are fairly easy to get and not very expensive. Basically, buying one C&R firearm with a C&R FFL saves enough money on the transfer fee to cover the cost of the license.

And what kind of Eastern Bloc bang can you get for your buck? I recently picked up a MosinNagant M91/30 rifle for $80, plus $20 shipping and $40 for the transfer. The MosinNagant is one of the most popular battle rifles of all time, and was used in the Soviet empire up until about 1960. It’s a five-shot bolt action rifle that is as powerful as a 30-06 — but uses military surplus 7.62x54r ammo that comes in a 440-round metal tin and costs about a fourth of what 30-06 ammo does. It comes with iron sights, but optical scopes and mounting kits run about $110 total and can be installed without gunsmithing. Presto: instant deer rifle or long range varmint gun. I haven’t yet invested in a scope; I’ve been basically breaking the thing in, shooting in my back yard.

Actually, what I’ve been “breaking in” is my shoulder: the MosinNagant kicks like a mule, and it takes some practice to learn how to handle it properly. But this beast is in great shape and is as cool as can be. Mine has “1941” and various Cyrillic characters stamped on it — and comes with a wicked looking bayonet that’s about as long as my forearm (and doubles as a flathead screwdriver when disassembling the rifle). One can only imagine the stories that this rifle could tell. Most remarkable, IMO, is the following that these rifles have attracted; one quick Google search reveals a great many user groups, support forums, and sources for parts/accessories.

And there are lots of similarly powerful Eastern Bloc surplus rifles you can get, also at reasonable prices. How about a Yugoslavian-made M24/47 that fires 8mm Mauser ($.29/round military surplus) ammo? Sometimes they also carry ex-Nazi Mauser rifles, which the Soviets captured at the end of WWII and then shipped around the world to their proxy armies. Or, if you’re looking for a powerful semi-auto handgun that uses inexpensive ammo, it’s hard to do better than a Romanian TT-33 pistol; the list price is $209, and the 7.62×25 Tokarev ammo is around .11/round. Classic also carries CZ-82 ex-police pistols, chambered in 9×18 Makarov, for around the same price; the Makarov holds more rounds, but is not as powerful as the Tokarev, and 9×18 ammo tends to cost more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you’ve been looking for a powerful but affordable bolt action rifle, but have been discouraged by the high prices for brand new American-made 30-30s and 30-06s at the local gun shop (not to mention the cost of ammo), take a look at Eastern Bloc military surplus weapons. Ditto if you’ve been trying to find a good semi-automatic handgun. These Eastern Bloc firearms are very good; the Soviets may have made lousy consumer products, but they did know how to make effective weaponry. And with the Berlin Wall down, these guns are available here for reasonable prices.

That, to me, is one of the most remarkable legacies of the last 20 years: I can buy in the free market, and own, a rifle that for decades was employed by those who sought to destroy our freedom and way of life. And how can one put a price on that?

Cash

A few days after taking our eleven lambs to the butcher shop, I got an interesting phone call from the owner. He’d nearly finished processing them, and said they’d be ready for pickup in two days. The call came fairly late in the evening, after the shop’s closing time, and I could hear plenty of activity in the background. It sounded like they were indeed swamped with work, and I was thankful they’d been able to work our eleven lambs into their schedule.

He then told me what the total price was going to be. The standard charge would be $55 per lamb, or $605 altogether. (I usually put that on a credit card.) However, he continued, if I wanted to pay cash…he would drop the total to $500.

Needless to say, that’s a pretty substantial discount. Some readers may suspect that cash payments are merely a way for a shopkeeper to evade taxes; I can’t speak to that…what I do know is that the guy who runs this shop strikes me as a very honest and upstanding person. And I will say this: credit card companies can charge some fairly steep transaction fees, especially for merchants with relatively lower sales volume. For the savings he was offering, I was perfectly happy to go to the ATM and withdraw what was needed (though, being a hard core Casablanca fan, I must confess that I couldn’t stop thinking about this classic scene the whole time I was doing it — the key clip comes at about 1:15 on the linked video).

Given current economic conditions, and that all of us are looking for ways to save some money, I wonder if we will see “cash discounts” become more widespread. I like using credit cards for the convenience, the “float” on the use of the money, and the rewards benefits. (We pay in full each month, so there are no finance charges.) But if merchants are willing to offer a lower price for the use of cash, so they can avoid the CC fees, I’ll leave the credit card in my wallet and pay with cash.

Is anyone else out there starting to see more “cash discounts” being offered? I’m starting to think it might even be worth asking merchants straight out, especially smaller shops and tradespeople, what kind of discount they would be willing to offer if we pay in cash.

Why Do This?

A reader from Southern California (actually not far from where our family lived, pre-farm) who wishes he could be doing what we’re doing, Kevin Aldrich, writes with some important thoughts and observations:

It would seem that the reason to have a family farm is not so much to grow your own food or have a viable business as to have a means of raising your kids well. They are more “in touch” with real life and work with their hands, not just with their heads and technology.

Here’s a kind of a idea for raising kids—not that I’ve done it for any of mine—but a child’s development could kind of follow the history of the development of humanity. It seems like we are more and more cut off from the life that most people have led through most of human history. Not that we want any of the negatives, like mortality rates before modern medicine, or famines before the Green Revolution, or battles followed by rape and pillage.

Rather, it seems like kids would have a huge advantage if their youths were filled with activities like storytelling, memorization, growing your own food, dealing with animals, running, fighting, using weapons, building fires and doing without electricity, dealing with heat and cold and darkness, writing with pencils instead of keyboards, penmanship, building and fixing things, reading instead of watching, talking instead of texting. Have you seen Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E? People are fat and chair-bound and taken care of by robots. It really is the future.

I guess I think about this because I live on the edge of the center of modern, artificial living…

It really is remarkable how different the Yeoman Farm Children are from other kids their age. They get up each morning, go outside, and are responsible for milking two goats. They take the goats out to pasture. In the evenings, they do it all again (in reverse), and hunt all over the barn gathering eggs, and make sure the various animals have the food they need. They are present when lambs and goat kids are born, alert us to any problems those animals may have, work to ensure the health of all those animals … and help load mature animals into the truck when it’s time to go to the butcher. They know how to cultivate soil, how to plant seeds, how to tell the difference between a weed and a “good” seedling, which tomatoes and peppers are ripe, how to handle fresh produce (and eggs) without damaging or breaking anything. And because their severe food allergies make meal preparation such a big production (in the time it takes most kids to finish off a bowl of Fruit Loops, we’re still grinding grain for hot cream-of-rice cereal), they have learned to take the lead in cooking breakfasts and lunches from scratch.

They do not have iPods or cell phones or Facebook pages, do not “text” their friends, have never surfed beyond the EWTN Kids website, and their television viewing is limited and always supervised (and made up of sports, politics, religious, and History Channel type stuff). They read a lot of books, particularly historical fiction. They know how to type, and how to use computers, but do most of their work with pen and paper. They know firearms are not toys, but rather powerful tools which must be respected and handled safely and responsibly.

When we first moved to the country, one of our primary motivations was getting control of our food supply. But the longer we’ve been doing this, and the more we’ve observed the way our kids have thrived, our motivation for continuing to farm has increasingly become the whole lifestyle and culture in which our family is immersed here, and the sorts of well-rounded young adults into which the YFCs are growing. It’s hard to imagine anything that could’ve been better for them. Or for us.