Try Organic, Free-Range Turkey For Thanksgiving

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This post from a couple of years ago has been getting a lot of traffic this week so I thought I would bring it, and maybe a couple of other Thanksgiving posts, up front for everyone to see. This is a timely topic of course, but can be applied to your choice of turkey or chicken year round.

Like many people, we only have whole roasted turkey 2 or 3 times a year and always between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. As I am not a hunter, the lady on the left is safe this year, (at least from me). I do my hunting at the grocery store! For as long as I have been cooking the bird, (don’t ask, it’s a long time!), I have always looked for free-range turkeys. I discovered years ago that free range turkeys do indeed taste better. I suspect this is because of two main reasons. First, the birds are out walking around all day, getting exercise and developing leaner, less fatty meat. And second, being outside, they eat all kinds of vegetation, bugs, worms, etc. Just like the eggs of chickens that eat lots of natural food taste better, turkeys that have a more natural diet taste better.

One caveat to the above is that some free range turkeys do very little ranging at all. If a grower raises the kind of turkey that has an unnaturally large breast of white meat, they can be top heavy and have difficulty walking. “Free Range” is not a guarantee of a healthy, humanely raised turkey. Many large turkey producers just provide a little access to an outside environment for some of their birds so they can label them free range and get a higher price. Organic turkey growers avoid this deceptive practice. I think some organic turkey growers also stay away from the bird varieties that have the heavy breast problem. That, and the avoidance of hormones, might be one of the reasons organic turkeys are not easily available in weights over 14-16 pounds.

Although free-range birds have been available forever, in recent years growers have marketed the organic methods of raising these birds. Free range does not always mean organic, so read the label closely. Sometimes being certified organic is a costly process for small growers. If you purchase a locally grown turkey, (the best method), even if it does not say “organic”, take a close look at the label. A local grower might label their birds as free-range, with no hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals. I have asked small local produce growers in our area why they don’t market their produce as organic. The reply is usually that although they use organic growing methods, they can not afford the cost of the certification process. The same thing can be true with smaller meat and dairy farms.

If I plan far enough ahead of time, I prefer to get fresh turkeys. This year, I was late and had to get a frozen, organic, free-range bird. The main advantage of fresh birds is moisture preservation, but I have been able to get around this issue by following a couple of steps. When thawing a frozen bird, always leave it in its plastic wrapper until completely thawed. Then, try the reduced basting method of cooking. After preparing the bird for the oven, I completely cover it with a sealed tent of heavy duty foil. I leave the foil in place until the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking. I do baste during this last bit of cooking time, but mainly for looks, to get a nice brown bird.

If you are wondering why you should get a free range turkey, all you have to do is learn how some conventional turkey farms operate. If you are a fan of Mike Rowe and his Dirty Jobs TV show, he had an episode on turkey farms. The crowded conditions on these farms are incredible. Workers have to regularly walk through and pile up sick, dying and dead birds for disposal. They are fed sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to ward off infection. They are fed hormones to increase their growing speed and eventual size. Many of these turkeys are so sick and heavy they can’t walk. Turkey farms, like most huge, industrial farms are often big polluters of their local environment.

Organic, free range turkeys are healthier, taste better, don’t contain hormones and antibiotics, and have a less adverse impact on the environment. There are reasons some people say they can’t get a healthier turkey. Because growth hormones are not used, it can be difficult to find organically produced turkeys over 14-16 pounds. Also, organically produced turkeys do cost more, but they are well worth it.

I have followed up this article with another discussing why the healthy turkeys cost more, and why, within reason, they are well worth the extra price.

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Will Sig
1 Bob

Very interesting about organic and free range differences, and thanks for the thawing and cooking tips, just have to find where to get one.

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2 Will

Hi Bob! Depending on where you live, you might be surprised how available organic turkeys are. At least in frozen form. I would estimate that 3/4ths, or more, of the large grocery stores around here carry them this year.

Good luck!

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3 Foods for Free

I ordered some free range chickens. 20 of them. They cost nearly 15 a piece smoked. I can’t wait. These will be the best chickens of my life.

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4 brittany clark

I used to raise turkeys as a little girl and there was nothing better than your own free-range turkey on your table for turkey day! (I hated to watch my dad cut their heads off though!) Come see my site!

brittany clarks last blog post..A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on ABC

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5 Beth

Thank you so much for all this information – and for clarifying the difference between free range and organic, I used to think they were more or less the same, but now I know better!

I’ve had the misfortune of visiting one of those commercial turkey farms once and was appalled at the conditions that the birds lived in. There were so many trampled ones lying on the ground – It was years before I ever ate turkey again.

Thanks also for the cooking suggestions, I’ll try them out this Thanksgiving!

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6 Beth

Thank you so much for all this information – and for clarifying the difference between free range and organic, I used to think they were more or less the same, but now I know better!

I’ve had the misfortune of visiting one of those commercial turkey farms once and was appalled at the conditions that the birds lived in. There were so many trampled ones lying on the ground – It was years before I ever ate turkey again.

Thanks also for the cooking suggestions, I’ll try them out this Thanksgiving!

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7 Keith

Any animal who gets to eat natural forage tastes better. That is why people love venison and wild turkeys so much. There is just a depth of flavor there. Some people call it gaminess, but really it is just much more flavor than they are used to experiencing.

And of course the meat is richer in almost all of the nutrients, especially the good fats.

Whether free range animals are “happier” or not, they are certainly healthier. They are also living as they were designed to live by the Creator. Win, win, win situation, especially if the consumer can get it ih his head that it is worth the extra expense. You did a wonderful job of pointing out that it is worth the extra expense.

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8 Will

Hi Beth – Yes the dead ones need to be removed every day, sometimes more than once. Some get trampled or suffocate, others just die from sickness. Pretty bad all around.

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9 Will

Well said, Keith. It is always dangerous to put human attributes like happiness on animals, but I feel for sure that some animals, like pigs have a capacity to be happy or sad, depressed or “normal”. Whatever you call it, when I was growing up the neighboring farm always had several pigs. They all had personalities and seemed to interact not only with each other, but with us. Cows on the other hand seemed pretty dumb, but that is no reason to raise them in the manner that most are.

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10 Jane The Organic Gardener

Thanks for this post, I usually have a turkey for christmas but last year we decided to go for a goose and it was fantastic. As much as I enjoy eating turkey on special occasions I think we will be having goose from now on.

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11 Sarah

Yes, I’ve seen that Dirty Jobs episode. It’s pretty disgusting to think where our chickens and turkey’s come from – that is if we buy them at the grocery store. I think the meat tastes so much better if they are free range / wild.
Sarah recently posted..Dacor Epicure EG486SCH Gas Cooktop ReviewMy Profile

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12 Tammy

I am raising Organically fed, Free-Ranged Turkeys this year and they are a Broad-breasted breed so they are not as active ranging as they would be if they were a heritage breed(what I thought I was ordering!) However, they are super healthy and happy, ranging all over their pasture and eating bugs and seeds as well as their organic, local grain.
This is expensive to provide, but I am determined to support organic food.
In November I will process them and each bird is supposed to dress out at about 28-34 pounds. Thats a big bird!
I will have 19 for sale and I wonder how much I could charge. I have read anywhere from $2.99 – $4.99/lb., and though the cost/per bird would be at somewhere near there, I’m afraid no one will want to pay $100 or more for a Thanksgiving turkey. Thus leaving me with a freezer full of enormous birds!
Don’t know if I should charge less so that I can market them more easily or if people really do spend that much on a Thanksgiving Turkey. I’m looking for some opinions, please! Thank you!

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13 Will

You know Tammy, lots of people pay that much for heritage breeds so you may have a market. I bet they are going to be great. But the size is hard to believe. 30 lbs is a big bird! I think you will sell them depending on the demographics of the market where you live.

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14 Paul at Quotes About Love

Having come from a farm background in Ireland I am only too aware of the difference between organic/free-range and ‘other’ types of fowl. In blindfold tests with my friends all 6 friends choose the organic chicken even though they were convinced there would be no difference in taste. Once you’ve had organic you’ll never go back!

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15 debbie T

Thank you for your informative article.

I ordered a “free range” Jaindl turkey from Whole Foods and after doing some digging on Jaindl Farms, I have decided to cancel my order and go local.

I can probably only afford a conventionally grown local bird for the holiday, but I hope it will still be tasty! After learning how badly these poor birds are treated, I feel so guilty.

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16 Della Jastrzab

Thank you so much for posting this. We raise certified organic Truly Free Ranging chickens and turkeys here. Ours run a round in a 14 acre predator proof high fenced area roosting in trees and lounging on the ground. They have personalities, can fly, and are a pleasure to raise. It is rare that we lose any. Their taste is superior, their texture is firmer than commercially raised birds. We have known people to NOT appreciate these qualities because they have become used to the commercial fare! Most are blown away by it though, and return each year for another.

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17 Will

That’s great, Della! What really amazes me though is that you have 14 acres predator proofed. That is a lot of ground!

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18 Della Jastrzab

Well, it is predator proof against dogs, coyotes and fox, the threats to our turkeys that are here. I found out when I raised chickens in there that it is not predator proof against hawks! But when you have a hawk problem you only lose them one a day or so. When a fox comes in you can lose them all.

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19 Hillary

I had the same problem with my chickens as well. The foxes get smart too so you really have to make sure you have all areas covered and I also dug a trench so the fence sat below the dirt to deter them from digging under.

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20 Jeff Kee

Great article Will – it’s very true that local farmers & growers often cannot afford the certification process under the government regulators, but provide food that is just as high quality (if not higher) than the larger growers.

Living in the city it’s hard to keep connected to my food sources.
Jeff Kee recently posted..World Cup Fun FactsMy Profile

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21 Will

Hi Jeff – I heard an interview today with a man who is trying to promote growing food for the city masses in high rise indoor gardens. It was a very interesting discussion and seems to have real potential. I’ll look for some written information on the topic.

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22 Chuck

We used to be friends with some folks who operated a turkey farm. As best as I can tell, their operation was part-institutional and part free-range. Boy did it sure smell funky around there when the wind was blowing “just right”. And yes I agree with the comment that seeing one have it’s head chopped off is enough to make you lose your appetite. Maybe some small consolation in the fact that the turkeys seemed pretty dumb and unaware. ..but not much.

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