My favorite thing about living and working on the farm, is how much more connected I feel to the earth. It was thrilling for me to watch the first blossoms of Spring on my new apple trees, the birth of the goats, all the chicks that hatched, and the day I felt the air change completely, as Fall blew in.
The latest thrill has been seeing our turkeys through an entire cycle. Something I never imagined I would do.
Last April, I bought five 8 week old turkey poults. They were a mix of Bourbon Red and Midget White, heritage breeds. According to Mother Earth magazine, these breeds rank #1 and #2 in taste tests, and they were hatched locally, so I was all in!
They were adorable!
I read that turkeys will imprint on you the way geese do, and they did. Every time I went into the coop, they would fight to be the first to jump up on my shoulder or head. Sometimes I would end up with one on each shoulder and a third on my head. The kids got a huge kick out of it! And I hardly minded the time I was standing in line at the grocery store and noticed foot print shaped poop smears on my shoulder and chest!
By the time they got to weighing about 10 pounds, I was over it. Their claws were getting big and they liked to peck at every shiny thing, like my teeth, eyes, hair. And then they started to be downright ugly! It was about this time that they made the local paper for the first time. Then I started to be able to tell the Toms from the Hens. See, the Toms have more red skin on their faces and heads. I had three of the former, and 2 of the latter, which was perfect! One each for Thanksgiving and Christmas, then 2 Hens and a Tom for breeding.
With the kid’s Farm Programs that I run, I’m always a tiny bit nervous when I tell the little ones that some of our animals will be food. I am determined not to lie about it or sugar coat it for them, but at the same time I want them to learn that it’s a vital part of the circle of life. So far, even the vegetarian kids have accepted my explanations on the subject! They have learned why the boys become food and the girls become pets. (yes, I will admit it, they have become my pets!).
By August, I found myself explaining why the turkeys were “walking on each others backs”. One of the kids guessed that it was a massage, and their backs must hurt. Um, ok, kid, no. I told them that this is how they make babies. They squealed with excitement!! “we’re gonna have babies?” “will I be here?” “I’m gonna tell my mommy I need to come every day so I can see!” “can we hold them?”
Now, since this was my first go round with turkeys, I had to depend on the information found on the information super highway (as my little brother calls it). I read that turkeys are too young to be mating at 4 months and that my hens wouldn’t start laying until Spring 2012. So we just went about learning all we could about turkeys…like, that there would be no babies until Spring Camp. And that the fleshy, bulbous bumps on their face and chin are caruncles. We also learned that the snood (the fleshy thing that hangs down over the Tom’s beak) gets longer and shorter depending on, uh, what’s happening at the moment. Once, we were feeding them grass and one of the Toms gobbled down a bite AND his snood! He started choking and I was forced to give him CPR, pulling the snood out of his throat. I was an instant hero! I have learned that the boys are not so smart and lack personality, while the girls are sweet, even loving.
In September the hens started being really friendly and seemed almost attached to me. I think we have a connection. I may need to get out more often. I could let them out to free range and they would come back when I called them. They liked to sit on my lap and be petted and would even take a snooze there, in spite of the rambunctious kids around them. And then. Then they started laying eggs. Lots of eggs. I slipped them into the cartons that I sell to friends and neighbors. We ate them. (they taste the same, but are bigger and have an incredibly hard shell). And then in November one of the hens started sitting. Sporadically at first, but then she wouldn’t get off the nest unless I brought in oat hay.
Her sister soon joined her…about then, they made the paper again! At first they had 22 eggs under them. By the time I checked last week, they were up to 33. I candled 3 and saw that there were chicks growing in there! I won’t lie, I have been more excited than the kids, and the kids were pretty excited.
We went into Thanksgiving week with the kids fully prepared for the fact that one of the Toms wouldn’t be there when they got back. And they were really ok with it. Even explained it to their parents, very matter of factly. On Thanksgiving day, John and I spent the day harvesting 5 roosters and our Thanksgiving turkey. (My kids were with their dad, so we celebrated the Sunday after.) I have no pictures of this. The harvest. It was really solemn and I felt like it would be disrespectful to show pictures of it.. We barely spoke at all. We just did the job. I found myself talking to myself, to the birds, under my breath, the whole time. John handled the killing part (traffic cone turned kill cone and a knife to the jugular) and I gutted ( I wish my hands were smaller). We plucked together. (awww, how sweet). When we got to the turkey, the job became a whole lot harder, He was heavy. His wings were strong and he wasn’t friendly and tame like the hens (for this, I’m grateful). I had watched many videos to find the fastest, most humane way to do this. The best way involved hanging the bird by the feet, weighting it’s head, then cutting the jugular. Nice and neat in every video I saw…but our weight broke, and he started flapping hard enough to give a black eye. I ended up holding his head, talking to him (not that I think that mattered to him, but it made me feel better to say sorry and thank you) until he stopped moving. I’m pretty sure those blood stains will never come out of my jeans and I’m ok with that.
We let the turkey sit, overnight, in a cooler full of cold water and ice. Then I mixed up Dog Island Farm’s kick ass brine recipe and let it sit in that for a whole day, followed by a day of “rest” in the fridge. On Sunday we enjoyed THIS…
I have no words for how great it was. 20 pounds of great.
Meanwhile, I read that 25 days was the incubation time for the eggs the hens were sitting on. That would have put us at the middle of last week. I harassed the hens three times a day, feeling under them for chicks. (did you know hens can hiss???? They do. trust me). Nothing!
Then on Saturday, John and I did something we never do. Ever. We went to a Christmas party at the Chaminade Resort and spent the night. Farmer Pam became Party Pam! Shocking, I know.
And, when we got home in the morning my first stop was the turkey pen. Where I heard PEEPING coming from under the Mommies! They didn’t want me to look, so I left them alone. It got pretty cold last night, but it seemed toasty warm under them, and I am really trying to let nature take it’s course, so….
Today I couldn’t stand it anymore. I couldn’t hear the peeping anymore and didn’t want all their work to be for nothing. So, with Marielle, the brave 5 year old, in tow, I headed to the coop to assess. We were nervous. She wouldn’t even come in at first, but soon was cooing and petting the hens with me, hoping that they would remember all the lap naps we gave them, rather than freak out and kill us! I felt around under them and felt something…I pulled out this half hatched baby….
That’s when I decided to pull all the eggs and put them in the incubator. In one of the grabs, I felt downy feathers and heard peeping again. I wish I had a picture of the look on little Marielle’s face when I pulled this out of the nest we built together a month ago… (This picture was taken as the chick snuggled under my shirt, trying to get warm).
And, so, as I type this, I have this little baby in my shirt and at least 7 peeping in the incubator.
May the circle be unbroken.