Turkeys delivered by FedEx? Poultry sell-outs in 45 minutes? What in the world of Florida farming is going on? Some of the state's turkey farmers — a rare breed — have carved out a niche.
John Haughey | Contributing Writer
Florida is a powerhouse for agriculture nationally, with 47,100 commercial farms generating some $9 billion annually in shipped commodities. That includes $485 million in poultry. Most of that poultry is chicken.
Yet, the Sunshine State's contribution to the turkey industry, while somewhat ... paltry, includes several thriving niche turkey farms on the west coast of the state. These farms are part of a group of 600 statewide that raise about 5,500 free-range turkeys a year, according to data from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Robert Kluson, a Sarasota-based extension agent with the UF institute, says the trend in turkey and chicken farms is in pasture-raised poultry.
One challenge in data collection of turkey farms is timing. Most of these operations do the bulk of the year's work in November and December, for Thanksgiving and Christmas sales.
This year, there are at least four farms in the region raising the holiday turkeys. In late October, the farms' combined inventory of nearly 800 pasture-raised turkeys could be ordered online, at farmers markets or the old-fashioned way — picking it from the flock on the farm.
The largest Southwest Florida turkey producer is the 130-acre Circle C Farm in Felda, a 45-minute drive from Naples on the Hendry side of the Collier-Hendry county line. Much of the family owned and operated farm's produce and meat is sold at its Bonita Springs store.
Circle C owner Nicole Kozak and her husband, Manny, began raising non-GMO, soy-free, pasture chickens in October 2014, augmenting retail by selling directly to area restaurants. Last year, they added turkeys and will sell up to 60 to local chefs and about 450 to the public for Thanksgiving.
“We put 500 on the ground last year and were a bit surprised by the demand,” Nicole Kozak says. “We expected to have a handful left but we didn't. The week after Thanksgiving, we still had people wanting to buy turkey for Christmas.”
As of late October, Circle C had about 450 gobblers available on its website. Consumers pay a deposit and can pick their bird up at the Bonita Springs store or have it delivered by FedEx. “Who'd have thought you could get a turkey in the mail?” Kozak laughs.
Trail Bale Farm near Temple Terrace, in Hillsborough County near the University of South Florida, has raised 115 turkeys for Thanksgiving, says Dave Haberkorn, who co-owns the eight-acre farm with what he calls “childhood friends” and a “handful of interns.”
“Forty-five (turkeys) are already spoken for,” he says. “We sell a handful at farmer's markets and on the website. People can also come to the farm to pick them up.”
Trail Bale Farm began raising turkey for Easter 2015. This is its third year it has offered Thanksgiving turkeys. “Last year, we raised 50 and were sold out a month before” Thanksgiving, Haberkorn says.
Tim Clarkson at the 10-acre Grove Ladder Farm in Sarasota County has raised 150 turkeys for this upcoming Thanksgiving. “This is our third year doing Thanksgiving turkey. We did 35 the first year and sold out in 45 minutes,” he says.
A $50 deposit reserves the turkey. Consumers can pick them up at the Sarasota Farmers Market the Saturday before Thanksgiving or at the farm the following Monday. “They average 12-to-18 pounds with 15 pounds being most typical,” Clarkson says, noting 75 were unclaimed in late October. “We'll sell them until we sell out.”
Peaceful Pastures Farm in Zephyrhills has produced 100 turkeys for Thanksgiving each of the past five years, owner Brian McCray says, but this year, the 11-acre farm only has about 50. “Unfortunately,” he says, “a predator killed half our Thanksgiving flock. It's a big hit on us, as well as on the folks who've supported us through the years.”
Such vagaries of nature — McCray suspects a fox or raccoons decimated his flock — as well as the low cost of mass-produced Big Ag turkey, make raising the birds on a commercial scale “just not economical” for local small farms, says Kluson, with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
A 'Stress-Free' Bird's Life
The most popular commercial turkey are hens produced by Butterball, Hormel and Cargill. Virtually all are raised in nine states, with Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas the nation's leading producers.
Turkeys stocked in grocery freezers are produced year-round. When they reach certain sizes and weights, they are injected with a saline-oil solution to add bulk, blast-frozen at minus-30 degrees and stored for peak holiday demand.
The primary commercial breed is the broad-breasted white, which naturally has a larger breast muscle than other breeds. Like corporate farms, Florida's boutique farmers raise broad-breasted white turkey, Knudson says, but that is where the similarities end. Unlike corporate farms, which harvest turkey year-round and freeze the birds, those raised for Thanksgiving on Florida farms were hatched in North Carolina or the Midwest in July and shipped as days-old poults, Knudson says.
Peaceful Pastures' McCray says “it is a timing thing” in getting poults at the right time for Thanksgiving — they must be harvested at no younger than 4 months and no older than 5 months.
Beyond that, Trail Bale's Haberkorn says, “We'd end up with ginormous birds that wouldn't fit in the oven.”
The birds grow quickly “on fresh air, sunshine, bugs, grass and all the things turkeys like to eat,” he adds. Trail Bale Farm rotates turkeys “to fresh grass and pasture every day because they destroy the land. This way, we don't have to medicate them, and the mortality rate is low. They are free of stress.”
Grove Ladder's Clarkson says open-pasture grazing requires electrified nets to protect turkey from hawks and electric fences to ward off ground predators. “They eat an insane amount of grass,” he says, noting the birds forage for 70% of their diet and it “affects the flavor of their meat.”
Clarkson says his turkeys will be dressed by hand the weekend before Thanksgiving and stored on ice in a walk-in cooler. They are never frozen.
Kozak says Circle C's coops are always open so the turkeys can range at night — under the protection of the farm's two 125-pound Maremma sheepdogs. Her birds drink kelp-infused water with a mix of oregano, lemon and lemongrass, and she follows a “Serengeti” rotational grazing model, in which mobile turkey coops are moved to new pastures every two days. “We don't use anything on our pastures,” she says. “We let the poultry fertilize them — no herbicides, no pesticides, no chemicals.”
Kozak says Circle C has the only USDA-certified 'On Farm' abattoir, or slaughterhouse, in Florida and one of only three in the nation. “All our animals are harvested by hand here,” she says. “They are not transported anywhere.”
As consumers become more leery of Big Ag farming practices and more informed about the value of locally grown produce and livestock, Kluson says IFAS is seeing growing interest in its small-farm workshops and USDA certification programs. “I wouldn't say it's a huge trend,” he says, “but we're supporting people who want to get into it.”
The turkey farmers in the region see the increase, too.
“People are thinking about what they're eating, not just going for a commodity turkey, a factory turkey,” Kozak says. “They're asking, 'Where did they get that turkey from?' Our turkeys are raised the way they're supposed to be raised and harvested humanely. There is an increase in demand for a clean, healthy, happy turkey.”
McCray says his customers “are aware of the foods they eat and don't trust the food complex system. They are educated and want clean-raised animals.”
The key to meeting that demand is to stay small, hands-on. “We're not out to set the world on fire,” McCray says. “If you want to go large, things start changing.”
Clarkson, too, has noticed the resurgence in local food. “There's more information available because of the time we live in,” Clarkson says. “Luckily for us, people have been spreading the news. People are more aware of what happens on industrial farms and they're looking for alternatives. This is a great time to be a local farmer, for sure.”