BELMONT-Eric Rubel is busy. Not that the family farm doesn't offer enough work the rest of the year with sheep, beef cattle, laying hens and assorted groups of meat chickens, but at the end of the summer he adds 160 turkeys to the mix. Not to worry-they'll be gone by Thanksgiving, especially since 675 million pounds of turkey is eaten in the U.S. on this holiday alone.
In the wild, turkeys are the largest birds in North America and feed on acorns, seeds, berries and insects. They are native to the northeastern United States and northern Mexico, and fossils 10 million years old show what appear to be the bird's ancestors. There is evidence of Native Americans hunting them as early as 1000 A.D., but credit for domesticating the turkey is given to the Mexicans. Early Spanish explorers took it back to Europe. Today, because of its high protein, low fat make-up, 50 percent of Americans eat turkey at least once every week.
Rubel's parents purchased 75 acres, now called CrossRoads Farm, in 1972 to raise sheep for meat and wool. He studied animal science at college, intending to become a nutritional consultant for a feed company. Upon returning to the farm, Rubel began reading more about the benefits of rotational grazing, and it struck a chord. "Many farmers fail to recognize the need for diversity in farming," he says. "Poultry especially is non-competing for grass and pasture. It adds fertilizer and income." As his eyes scan the thick, green grass within the fences, he adds that sheep and chickens both had grazed here before the turkeys arrived, trimming and thinning the grass, aerating and fertilizing the soil.
Benjamin Franklin would have preferred to make the wild turkey the national bird instead of the eagle. The turkey is truly native to America.
Since 1999, turkeys have been continuing and contributing to the cycle. "When you can rotate pastures and stock, it all becomes synergistic and symbiotic. It enhances and contributes, not detracts" from the farm production. Rubel says he adds turkeys because it's a good fit with the rest of the system in grazing and timing.
When the turkey "poults," or chicks arrive with the last batch of chickens in August, they are kept in a brooding house for two months. He buys an all natural feed consisting of corn, oats, roasted soybeans, organic soybean meal, alfalfa meal, lime and dried whey, none of which is genetically modified (GMO).
At the end of September, the turkeys are carted to the pasture and put in contained pens for the next two months, until the week before Thanksgiving. Here they eat grass and plants found naturally in said pasture. Once or twice each day, Rubel moves the five pens a few yards over to new grass, giving the birds fresh forage and decreasing the impact on the land.
At first glance, the pens look confining because the curious birds crowd to the side to see the visitors and sit in the sun, but they actually have plenty of room to circulate or lay down. "If the pens weren't here, they would be all around you. They actually like people and will follow you everywhere." Just one of the quirks of what Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the United States' national bird.
The top is covered because turkeys can fly, though as the fuller-breasted "Thanksgiving breeds" grow, that capacity is diminished because their wings can't lift the added weight. Wild turkeys, however, have been clocked at 55 miles per hour in flight and running 20 miles per hour on land. Keeping the birds contained in the pens also helps the farmer control the food source and protects them from predators like bobcats or large dogs.
The product is worth the work according to Rubel who is known for his grass-fed, all natural meat and eggs. He says even the meat processor he uses near Dayton maintains a strict quality control policy, not even using salt as a preservative which can change the flavor. "These are all turkey, nothing else. Look at the ingredients list on a store-bought turkey."
Sure enough, ingredients for both Butterball and Honeysuckle White include more than just turkey. Consumers may also be getting water, salt, modified food starch, turkey broth and sugar when they purchase a frozen turkey. Sodium phosphates appear as a preservative, and companies add "natural flavors" for whatever purpose.
Jo Robinson, of www.eatwild.com, is a strong advocate of grass-fed meat, dairy and eggs. She writes that because of the diet and ability of the animals to walk around, this meat has less fat and saturated fat, less cholesterol and fewer calories. It has more naturally found (as opposed to added) nutrients like Vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, omega 3 and 6 oils and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). In its natural state, CLA is a cancer fighter. Researchers are discovering, though, that artificial CLA has some serious side effects. Meat from grass-fed animals contains three to five times the amount of natural CLA than that of feedlot fed animals.
Contrarily, Robinson and others talk about the practices of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) supplying nearly all grocery store and commercial meat, dairy and egg products. The feed consists mainly of cheap, genetically modified grain and soy and "by product feed stuff," which may include "garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers and candy." Poultry may be given drugs and antibiotics and are crowded into small cages where they cannot comfortably sit or roost and are exposed at all times to their own manure. The results of poor diet, drugs, additives and abuse are as much as one might expect: unhealthy, stressed animals with less nutritional value and flavor.
Labels can be misleading, too. Turkeys are "pre-basted" to increase flavor probably through "enhancing," meaning injected with a solution of water and additives or vacuum treated to increase the weight by up to 15 percent. Consumers pay based on weight.
"Natural" on a label does not mean "grass-fed" and is not about how the animal was raised. All it means is that the animal was not basted; there are no artificial ingredients or coloring, but the animal may have been given antibiotics.
Corporate agriculture in general is not concerned with "healthy" unless it refers to profits. Times are such that consumers have to be responsible for their own health, ethics and local economies. Family farm-raised, grass-fed products are "feel-good" foods all around. Looking over the hills at the sheep, chickens and turkeys, Rubel nods, "Healthier for the animals and healthier for you."
For more information on CrossRoads Farm, contact Eric Rubel at (740) 391-2651 or visit www.crossroadsfarm.net.