Gravy Train

Mainers are flocking to local turkey farms for Thanksgiving birds.

By Katy Kelleher
Photographs by Tristan Spinski

Aaron Bell has raised turkeys for a decade on his coastal farm, Tide Mill Organic, in Edmunds. He also has chickens, pigs, and cows, sells milk, and grows a wide range of veggies. Like most Maine turkey farmers, he started selling the birds as a sort of side hustle, for the late-season revenue bump they provide, courtesy of Thanksgiving. But demand for turkeys has been growing the past couple of years, he says, and he suspects that quite a few of his newer customers aren’t folks who buy groceries from organic growers or specialty markets on the regular.

Bell believes flavor is a big draw. His turkeys grow up along foggy Whiting Bay, where, he says, the cold salt air works like a “living brine” and “gives them an exquisite flavor.” Maybe so. But farmers around the state, not just near the coast, have enjoyed a recent uptick in business (all five farmers Down East talked to reported that their entire flocks were already spoken for as of early September). Meanwhile, national turkey sales have fallen flat for the past decade, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

West Newfield’s Harris Turkey Farm, run by Jason and Chase Harris, is among the Maine farms benefiting from a bull market for locally raised turkeys. 

Scott Greaney thinks Maine farmers have bucked the national trend at least in part because more consumers have gotten wise to the overcrowded, polluted conditions at factory farms. Most supermarket turkeys come from big-ag operations in the Midwest and the South. Greaney has been raising turkeys longer than most in Maine, since the ’80s. Nowadays, he says, his Greaney’s Turkey Farm, in Mercer, turns into a “three-ring circus” in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, with customers arriving from around New England to pick up birds. Other farmers report much the same. “We have a problem keeping turkeys in stock,” says Pauline Henderson, who started selling turkeys four years ago at New Sharon’s Pine Tree Poultry.

The classic Butterball turkey retails for about $1.50 per pound. Maine-grown, free-range turkeys start around $3.50 per pound. And yet more and more people seem to be opting for the latter. “It takes a special holiday for people to want to spend the extra money,” Bell says.

 

Bird-Brained

“The only thing dumber than turkeys are the people who grow them,” farmer Scott Greaney says. The main challenge of raising turkeys is keeping them alive, as the birds, especially when young, tend to stumble into untimely ends.

Drowning

Chase Harris, of West Newfield’s Harris Turkey Farm, has seen turkeys topple into pails of water or even puddles. “We’ve had a few die during torrential downpours,” he says. Greaney has found turkeys suffocating in their own food, so now he covers feeders with chicken wire.

Cuddling

When it’s cold out, turkeys huddle for warmth. Cute! Except the ones in the middle of the pile sometimes get crushed to death.

Defenselessness

Harris once lost 96 turkeys to one efficient weasel. Raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes are also threats. Now, he treats his birds to a steady diet of National Public Radio. The brainy programming hasn’t made the birds smarter, but human voices keep predators away.