Wading through a knee-high sea of wattles and beaks, Mary Pitman shouts above waves of gobbles to rattle off the names of turkey breeds on her family farm in the San Joaquin Valley. She points out the Narragansett, the white Holland and the standard bronze — birds that Americans have eaten since the days of the founding fathers.
Pitman Family Farms — which produces the Mary’s Free Range Turkey brand — sold out of Thanksgiving birds several months ago. The flock percolating around Pitman is reserved for Christmas. But customers are still willing to go to great lengths for a last-minute grab at her fresh, organic birds for the November holiday.
“I had one guy that offered to fly from Las Vegas in his private jet to get one of my turkeys,” Pitman said. “But I told him we were all sold out.”
Despite economic hardships and shrinking overall turkey production in the U.S., the allure of a fresh, organic turkey has grown in recent years. Farmers and industry experts attribute the increasing demand, particularly in California, to the health-conscious culture, the popularity of the anti-agribusiness sentiment found in the documentary “Food Inc.” and the movement for locally grown food. Or maybe it’s just simple nostalgia for a classic holiday feast.
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said that when it comes to Thanksgiving in California, “people are willing to pay more to get more.” He said not only that consumption of fresh turkey in California has grown 5% in the last five years or so, but also that about 90% of the turkey sold in California stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas would be fresh.
“In California, I think we’re going to see more fresh product being sold,” Mattos said. “It’s one of the best things we have going for us.”
Nationally, turkey production has been on the decline because of shrinking profits. Last year, 247 million turkeys were produced in the U.S., down from a peak of 293 million 15 years ago, according to the National Turkey Federation. Those turkeys are sold fresh, frozen or processed into products. The federation also has found that turkey consumption has been stable for the last decade, with the average U.S. consumer eating about 17 pounds of turkey a year.
As usual, California’s preferences aren’t jibing with the rest of the country’s.
Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the turkey trade group, said 2009 statistics show 69% of national consumers are eating frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving, probably for reasons of convenience and cost.
The price of a frozen turkey at an Albertson’s or Ralphs market usually tops out around $1.99 a pound (and some chains offer holiday turkey discounts to get customers in the store and spending on other things.) The price per pound of a fresh turkey can hit $5 or more but generally ranges from $1.99 to $2.69 — a noticeable price difference over frozen birds, especially when multiplied by 15 or 20 pounds.
The ways a turkey is bred, raised and fed are the primary contributors to a juicy bird, according to specialized organic turkey farmers and the big boys such as Foster Farms. Consumers need to be wary of labels such as “natural,” “organic” and “fresh” and find out what they mean when it comes to turkey, said Ira Brill, marketing director for Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms, the nation’s seventh-largest turkey producer and supplier this year of the White House’s turkey.
“There’s a sense that the term ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ have been applied so loosely that it’s lost its luster,” Brill said. Last year, the company released a survey that found 63% of consumers were unaware that some companies inject salt water into poultry, including turkey, while labeling it “all natural.”
Pitman said that organic turkeys must be raised on certified organic ranches and given organic feed, free of genetically modified organisms and pesticides. That also means no hormone injections, something her farm prides itself on.
“You get just turkey, just chicken, just duck. We have nothing added, no injections, nothing,” Pitman said. The volume rises from the turkeys that surround her on the farm’s 1-acre turkey pasture as they seem to gobble their approval.
The pampered batch of lushly feathered fowl, 500 in all, wobble around like a disorganized army, with a chorus of vocal outbursts that resemble the sound of a video on rewind.
“It’s cute how they talk in unison when they get excited,” she said, laughing.
Pitman Family Farms, managed by Pitman’s husband, Rick, and sons David and Ben, sells 100,000 turkeys a year. Sales are similar at Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, another family-operated organic and free-range turkey grower in Sonora, Calif. Both sell primarily to high-end grocers such as Trader Joe’s, Bristol Farms and Whole Foods.
To Tim Diestel and other farm owners trading only in fresh and organic California turkeys, the taste is worth the splurge.
“We’re only talking about a turkey, not a Rolls-Royce,” Diestel said. “But you are getting the Rolls-Royce of turkey.”