If you’ve scheduled a pickup of your fresh local bird for Thanksgiving this week, consider yourself part of a growing trend. Maine farmers are increasingly raising turkeys for the meat market, according to Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, with the number of live turkey poults being brought into the state up 30 percent in the last year.

Farmers say they’re responding to a demand for locally raised meat and a lucrative market. Turkey farming can bring in an infusion of cash into the farm shortly before the Christmas season, while also increasing customer awareness of the farm, thus opening doors for sales of other products.

“For us, when you have 85 people parading onto your farm and taking home something they like and appreciate, it can really be a really great farm-customer interaction,” said Joe Grady of Two Coves Farm in Harpswell, who will slaughter and process the farm’s flock of 85 organic birds Sunday.

But raising turkeys is a high-stakes game, farmers say. The birds themselves are delicate, dumb and prone to dangerous behavior. On the other side of the equation are customers counting on a carvable centerpiece, and no farmer wants to let them down.

“It’s definitely not for the faint of heart,” said Rhiannon Hampson of Grace Pond Farm in Monmouth. “They are challenging to raise, and you have a lot riding on one particular group of animals.”

Which is why Hampson and her husband, Gregg Stiner, could often be found in late summer roaming their pastures with headlamps on, trying to outsmart a Great Horned Owl who had developed a taste for their young turkeys. “Which is not easy!” Hampson said. “They are brilliant and they are determined.”

She and Stiner have encountered plenty of challenges since they began farming turkeys in South Monmouth in 2015, but this year they had even more at stake. They’d brought in more poults than before – 350 for the Thanksgiving season, about another 100 earlier in the year – and the owl had figured out a way to sneak under the electric netting and help him or herself, leaving piles of feathers behind. Or “the legs and pelvic area,” Hampson said ruefully.

She and Stiner would carry the young birds into their hoop structure at night, move the fencing around, roll down the tarp walls and then lie in bed on high alert for the telltale hoot.

Rhiannon Hampson, in one of Grace Pond Farm’s three turkey pens. She and Gregg Stiner sell their pasture-raised turkeys to stores including The Farm Stand in South Portland. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“It’s very spooky to know that is your fiercest competitor,” she said.

The need for this kind of attention, especially when turkeys are young, which coincides with the beginning of serious harvest weeks for those who also grow vegetables, is part of the reason Bowdoinham farmer Abby Sadauckas considers turkeys her biggest challenge. “It’s the hardest thing we do,” she said, leaning on a cooler full of Apple Creek Farm meat at a recent farmers market in Brunswick.

‘A REAL UPSWING’

But profits can be very strong. Whereas supermarket turkeys go for well under $1 a pound, prices for local turkeys range from around $3.99 a pound to $5.50, depending on whether they are free-range, organic or even one of the endangered heritage varieties that the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit based in North Carolina, has been advocating for successfully for about 20 years. And almost every turkey farmer we talked to had either sold out of their birds in the week before Thanksgiving or expected to.

The state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry knows how many turkey poults came into the state in the last year, “a little over 3,400,” said Justin Bergeron, the assistant state veterinarian who oversees the state’s poultry program. The department doesn’t track precisely how many Maine farmers are raising turkeys, but estimates 35 raise turkeys for more than just personal use, or as Bergeron put it, more than 10.

“We’re on a real upswing in the last five to 10 years,” Bergeron said.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which certifies farms for organic turkey production, has also noted an uptick.

“We have seen a few more operations pick up production and existing ones increase numbers,” Dave Colson, MOFGA’s agricultural services director, said in an email. Fourteen Maine farms are certified organic for turkeys.

Gregg Stiner puts a mix of sand and small gravel into the turkeys’ trough at Grace Pond Farm in Monmouth. Turkeys don’t have teeth so they need the grit to help grind their food. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Given the overall increase in interest in local foods and increasingly, local meat, the growth is hardly surprising. Bergeron points out that Maine has good weather for turkeys, which dislike hot temperatures. But it is still a fairly new phenomenon. Maine is home to a population of wild turkeys – strong and growing stronger, with recent estimates at 70,000 birds – but Bergeron said it does not have a history of turkey farming. “Up until 1983, we were (known as) the broiler chicken capital of the world, and that industry dominated the region,” Bergeron said.

Most of the bigger Maine turkey farms stay close to the state’s 1,000-bird limit, whereby they can legally process the birds themselves on the farm, Bergeron said. Some of the Maine farms that are certified organic for turkey production, like Serendipity Acres in North Yarmouth, have slaughter facilities that are also certified organic.

Jules Fecteau of Serendipity Acres estimates she’ll be processing 300 organic birds this year for the wholesale market. She wholesales to Rosemont Market, Bow Street Market in Freeport and the Portland Food Co-op, as well as some retail sales directly from the farm and at two farmers markets. Raising chickens was her gateway into the turkey business 10 years ago. She started with about 50 birds.

“Every year we do a little bit more, but we always seem to sell out,” Fecteau said.

“We’re sold out,” said Pauline Henderson of Pine Tree Poultry in New Sharon, one of Maine’s biggest turkey farms, which typically raises 1,000 birds or close to it. Pine Tree’s retail sales have been particularly strong this year, she said, with more customers coming directly to the farm. “They ask a lot of questions. They want a local bird instead of going to the big box stores.” And, she theorizes, they’re hoping to avoid a markup by going right to the source. Pine Tree Poultry’s birds, raised in open-air barns and fed vegetarian feed, without antibiotics or hormones, go for $3.99 a pound.

TURKEY TUESDAY

At Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick, the local turkey business has been in operation 36 years, owner Susan Tarpinian said.

On the retail end, the turkey business is booming, she said, with Morning Glory set up to dole out 270 birds (like Pine Tree Poultry, at $3.99 per pound) out of the Maine Street business this Tuesday. “Turkey Tuesday,” she said. “We have them iced in a warehouse in the back and we’re on walkie talkies. All day long we have lines of people.” She already had prepaid orders on 220 of that 270 a week before that.

Some of the birds from Grace Pond Farm. Gregg Stiner and Rhiannon Hampson move the turkeys’ net enclosure every night and their structure every five days to ensure that the flock continues to get dry grass. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“Every year we get more and more turkeys,” Tarpinian said. “But there is a limit to how many we can actually (physically) handle.”

Morning Glory sources from two poultry farms, Mainely Poultry in Warren and M.R. Sundance in Topsham, both of which produce natural turkeys – no antibiotics, no hormones, free-range, but not organic. The latter lost about 40 turkeys during the late October wind storm, underscoring the high stakes of turkey farming.

“They got blown away or drowned,” Tarpinian said. “Or they will huddle to death.”

That’s a common problem turkey farmers note – turkeys cuddle for comfort and in the pile-on, the ones in the middle can suffocate. At Grace Pond in Monmouth, farmers Hampson and Stiner send their daughter Ruby, 13, out to check on the turkey poults every 45 minutes in the summer. Her job includes gently separating turkeys from the throes of what will likely be a death cuddle.

“I always just say, turkeys really like to die,” said Joe Grady of Two Coves Farm. Beyond the cuddle, he’s seen poults drown themselves in a quarter-inch of water in a drinking dish. “It is amazing the ways they can jeopardize themselves.”

“They are always looking for ways to not make it to Thanksgiving,” Hampson agreed. At Grace Pond, part of the strategy to combat the early mortality includes eschewing the mail system for poult delivery. They order their poults from a hatchery in West Virginia and then Hampson’s mother-in-law drives through the night with them to Maine in July in her mini-van, with the heat cranked.

Rhiannon Hampson and Gregg Stiner walk back toward the house after filling turkey troughs. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“It has to be really warm,” Hampson said. “Between 96 and 100 degrees. She puts on a tank top and drives straight through.”

Farmers said that once the turkeys get big enough for the pasture, they’re fairly sturdy, absent a big wind or an owl. But there’s still a dance to get them to the ideal weight for customers who have preordered specific sizes, sometimes as early as the previous January.

Abby Sadauckas is currently juggling spread sheets for her 125 free-range, organic birds and will spend the next two days trying to match orders to the processed birds. After years of selling Apple Creek Farm’s turkeys wholesale to markets like Rosemont and the Portland Food Co-op, this year Sadauckas is selling only direct to customers. She’s experimented with other heritage turkeys in the past, raising a flock of Narragansetts, but this year raised only broad-breasted bronze turkeys (aka the Standard Bronze by the Livestock Conservancy), which is a popular variety with Maine farmers. The Narragansetts were like “athletes” she said, soaring into trees and sometimes, disappearing, presumably into the bellies of predators. They also took seven months to mature (most turkey poults arrive in Maine in July to be ready by Thanksgiving). In the end, she said, even charging $6 a pound “barely covered” the cost of keeping the birds alive.

She also found that to be a price threshold it was hard to get customers to cross. At $5.50 a pound, Apple Creek’s turkeys are “at the upper end” she said, but people seem willing to splurge to that extent on these organic turkeys.

That price includes a personalized letter explaining just how to cook the bird (pro tip: a local bird is likely to take only half the cooking time). Sadauckas aims to make the whole experience a happy, memorable one for customers, and says the feedback (“You made us look like pro chefs”) is worth the frantic preparation. What about her own Thanksgiving? She’s already had it, the weekend before processing, because by the actual third Thursday in November?

“We’re really wiped out,” she said.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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