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The low roar of an engine sounds to my left, and I glance over my shoulder to find a brightly smiling woman bounding over the grassy landscape on a dusty four-wheeler, wisps of her pixie cut flitting in the late summer breeze. I am standing on the front porch of Kathy and Scott Wheeler’s home, which is perched just off a gravel drive and down a long and winding country road in the hamlet of Hardyville in Hart County. The comfortable confidence and sense of belonging to this beautiful stretch of Kentucky countryside emanate from the woman on the four-wheeler, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is Kathy, a Kentucky transplant and Bourbon Red Turkey farmer.
“Don’t you want to come to the barn?” she shouts in welcome, gesturing for me to enter the lush landscape spread before me, a weathered barn alight in color from the dense green grass and azure sky. A gathering of cows can be seen in the distance, meandering into a small lake, two brown horses looking on. My instant impression of STAR Farm is that it is a place of peace and calm, an idyllic setting for any species and a breeding ground for the Bourbon Red Turkeys, a heritage breed of bird exclusive to Kentucky, that I would soon meet.
As our annual day of feast approaches, the question is not, “Will you be enjoying turkey on the last Thursday in November?” Instead, it is: “How will the famous entrée be prepared?” “Who will be coming to dinner?” Or, “What will be enjoyed alongside the bird?”
As turkeys of the Butterball variety are piled high in the bins of national grocery chains, I find myself seeking a more local Thanksgiving experience. The eat-local movement is alive and well in Kentucky, and our land is a good home to humanely raised chickens, pigs and cattle. The turkey is no different, and there are three Kentucky family farms in particular—STAR Farm, Tewes Poultry Farm and Dutch Creek Farm—that have embraced this holiday rock star.
As I approach the barn area, three dogs in tow, four stupendous turkeys emerge from a bush-lined fence, large gobbles escaping their brown breasts and echoing from blue beaks, their red wattles reverberating from the sound. They march toward Kathy and me confidently, and Kathy compliments them, cooing loudly in admiration. The turkeys respond proudly, nearly doubling in size as their feathers poof and fluff, their tails splaying into a beautiful fan. These are the “toms” or male turkeys, and they are more than 2 years old.
Kathy is one of the few local turkey farmers to produce her own chicks, and she takes me to a small shed to introduce me to a day-old baby, his now-empty eggshell still warm to the touch. He rests calmly under a heat lamp, 3- and 4-day-old chicks prancing around him, having established their footing a couple of days before.
Kathy and her husband, Scott, moved to Kentucky from Maryland in 2003, having never worked on a farm but drawn to the land, which was comparably low in cost, and were excited to get back to the basics. They both found jobs with Dart Container Corporation and still maintain full-time careers off the farm—Kathy in accounts payable and Scott as a driver. Passionate proponents of heritage breeds, they added turkeys to their growing brood in 2005, when Kathy discovered the Bourbon Red Turkey, which, as she puts it, “is Kentucky’s very own bird.” Added to the official poultry book in 1909, this bird was developed in Bourbon County by J.F. Barbee and enjoyed a strong following through the 1930s and ’40s, until the broad-breasted varieties overtook them in popularity.
Kathy is determined to reintroduce this state breed to Kentuckians and raises her small flock naturally, allowing them ample room to roam and forage as they please. As the chicks grow, they will be transferred to larger enclosures, eventually being allowed to wander freely when they are strong enough.
Kathy leads me down a large hill to a valley where the main flock resides, clucking at them as they move about in the grass, where they peck and poke, consuming bugs and grasses that make up more than 50 percent of their diet. She will not sell all of her turkeys this year but will allow a few select ones to become more mature, replacing her current toms to ensure the breeding remains fresh.
Selling approximately 40 birds per year—the largest topping out at 18 pounds—Kathy has a modest operation compared with the farm the Tewes family has been running since 1955. Tewes Poultry Farm raises and sells more than 3,000 turkeys come Thanksgiving week. Dan and Darlene Tewes are sole proprietors of the farm Dan’s father established in Erlanger, but they have plenty of help from the family when November rolls around.
As Dan is the 13th of 17 children, one of the first things the couple shares with me upon my arrival at Tewes Poultry Farm is how excited the family is to return to the farm in the days leading to Thanksgiving and, with 80 grandchildren and 124 (and counting) great-grandchildren, there is no shortage of help to go around. Dan and Darlene themselves have five children and one grandchild, but they manage the day-to-day operation of the farm on their own, raising chickens year-round and introducing turkeys back into the mix every summer. They bring in the Broad Breasted White chicks and begin a three-part rotation system as the youngsters grow, moving them from the second story of an old barn to a ground-level enclosure with access to the yard when they are a few weeks old. Later, they give the turkeys free rein to graze in a massive pasture, where the lights remain on and country music plays throughout the night to ward off predators.
When November arrives, the Tewes family will begin preparing the turkeys the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving, processing all 3,000 in-house with pick-up days scheduled for these fresh—never frozen—birds on the following Sunday and Monday. The week of Thanksgiving is their “Derby,” but they have the process down to a science after all these years and will sell out in no time, the majority of their customers repeat and loyal, excited to claim their bird, which can be as large as 40 pounds.
The Broad Breasted Turkey is generally thought of as the most recognizable breed and is the choice turkey of Doug, Susan, Chelsey and Jared Schlosnagle, the close-knit family behind Dutch Creek Farm in Pleasureville. Like STAR and Tewes Farms, Dutch Creek is strictly a family operation and a successful one at that, with parents Doug and Susan manning it during the day, while son Jared and daughter Chelsey attend college pursuing, not surprisingly, degrees in agriculture. Chelsey and Jared both take ownership of particular areas of the farm, with Chelsey running the chicken and egg production and Jared keeping a keen focus on the family’s grass-fed beef operation.
Susan greets me warmly on a particularly steamy late summer evening and invites me to hop on her off-road cart for a quick ride out to meet the turkeys, a large brood of 200 to be sold this fall. The turkeys top out at 25 pounds. We speed past two barns and over a grassy embankment, the land opening up before us revealing a large, white, airy coop, panting turkeys resting languidly in the shade of both their home and the trees lining the perimeter. Despite the heat, the turkeys remain in tight groupings and prove to be highly social, fanning out toward us as we park and enter the coop for a closer look.
Susan chuckles when I comment on how friendly and curious they seem. A large male with a prominent red snood falling over the side of his beak clucks toward me, eyeing my flip-flop-clad feet curiously. She agrees, telling me the vast field in front of us would soon be speckled white, turkeys spreading out in every direction as the sun drops and the air cools.
“They are amazing foragers,” Susan says, stating that more than half their diet will come from what they find when grazing the land. “They also love pumpkins, which will be added to their diet this fall.”
The freedom to forage and the addition of fresh pumpkins to the turkeys’ diet will have a direct effect on the richness and flavor of the meat. This is particularly noticeable in the heritage breeds, like the Bourbon Reds.
When I asked each family for their tips on preparing the best Thanksgiving turkey, they all responded in the same fashion, offering a slight chuckle and a shake of the head, indicating that preparing the bird for the traditional feast wasn’t their purpose in this process. And all agreed that, with meat this fresh and never frozen, little is needed to bring out the flavor. I prodded each a bit, asking for any family tips or secrets, and did leave with a few words of wisdom.
Susan of Dutch Creek said the best turkey she ever prepared was salted liberally the night before cooking and left to rest in the refrigerator, roasted the next day in two to three inches of chicken broth, and covered while roasting, with only the end exposed so the skin could crisp.
The Tewes family keeps it succulent and simple, buttering the inside of the cavity and seasoning the entire bird with a healthy dose of Mrs. Dash. Kathy from STAR Farm shared a recipe crafted by Brown-Forman Chef Mark Williams, a longtime fan of her Bourbon Red turkeys. “He told me that friends don’t let friends brine their turkey,” she said with a laugh, sharing instead the method of aging the bird overnight in an airtight fridge. Prior to roasting, the turkey is stuffed with onions, oranges, and fresh thyme and rosemary. Room-temperature butter is folded in between the skin and the meat along with an ample shower of salt and pepper. It is then roasted over top a bed of fresh fall veggies with one inch of water added.
Ultimately, when working with a product that is local—and so fresh—the last thing you want to do is inundate it with outside flavors that mask what the farmers have worked so hard to preserve.
I allow myself to drive at a leisurely pace as I depart Dutch Creek Farm, taking in the spectacular fields and valleys surrounding me, horses and cattle grazing in the sunset. The notion that I need to look no farther than my own backyard for my day-to-day sustenance is as apparent as ever.