Farm Fresh Turkeys Set Gold Standard for Holiday Birds
Plans for tasty holiday meals are underway in the Merrimack Valley. Though this tradition dates back many generations, local farm-fresh turkeys have become increasingly popular for foodies in recent years. We found several purveyors in the area who are offering their signature birds this season.
While most local grocery stores sell frozen or previously frozen turkey, a fresh bird — one that had been walking around a few days earlier with its white feathers plumped and making its happy gobbling, clicking sounds — undoubtedly tastes better, and not having to thaw it appeals to many family chefs who don’t mind the higher price tag.
Four area farms pride themselves on raising tasty turkeys for dinner tables in the Merrimack Valley. The largest is Raymond’s Turkey Farm in Methuen, where the fourth-generation family-owned business sells close to 20,000 turkeys per year.
“They’re getting the best fresh turkey they can get from us,” owner Jim Rischer says, referring to his customers. His parents, Raymond and Claire Rischer, started the farm in a garage with 24 turkeys in 1950, when Jim was just a baby. He attended the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston but returned the farm in 1971 to try his hand at the turkey business.
“This is all we do, we don’t do anything else. And we never sell out [of turkeys],” says Rischer, whose wife, children and grandchildren are all involved with the farm. At the on-site store, family memorabilia dots the walls and shelves, and all things turkey are prepared on a regular basis: turkey potpies, turkey meatballs, turkey meatloaf, turkey lasagna, turkey sausage, turkey soup, turkey gravy and all the traditional side dishes. Customers can order food hot and ready to go with an hour’s notice (although not during the busy season).
Raymond’s is unique to the area in that they not only sell turkeys year-round, they also have a hatchery on the 60-acre property where they breed their broad-breasted White Holland turkeys from embryo to egg. The turkeys are housed securely in eight open-air barns, where the birds are fed an all-natural grain diet. Turkeys ready for cooking weigh from 12 to 30-plus pounds, and turkey parts are also available.
At Tendercrop Farm in Newbury, Tendercrop owner Matt Kozazcki says he raises about 6,000 birds, and that his turkeys are available at any of his three locations, including Wenham, Mass., and Dover, N.H. He began selling turkeys in 2001, after he had the opportunity to buy equipment and supplies from the now-closed Maplevale Turkey Farm in East Kensington, N.H.
“I didn’t eat turkey for Thanksgiving because it was always dry,” Kozazcki says, citing the frozen turkeys typically found at many grocery stores. Then his brother served a fresh turkey one year and Kozazcki was impressed. That happened to be right around the time that Maplevale was closing, so he made the decision to get into the turkey business. Now he enjoys the moister meat of a fresh turkey that he doesn’t “need to cover with gravy” in order to eat it.
His birds arrive in Newbury as baby turkeys called poults and are feed a pellet mix of grain and vitamins. They live in an open barn, safe from predators, and are processed on-site just before Thanksgiving, a major endeavor that Kozazcki plans for throughout the year.
Turkey farms are “getting harder to find,” Kozazcki says, adding that a good staff and proper refrigeration are essential. “I’m happy I got into it. … It’s going to be a good Thanksgiving and holiday season,” he says, adding that a fresh turkey technically means the bird hasn’t been chilled at less than 26 degrees.
Elm Turkey Farm in Dracut began with 10 turkeys in 1981 and now sells 1,500 per season. Owner Charlie Daigle, a trained engineer, receives his birds as poults and feeds them a grain diet so they “plump up real nice.” The farm takes orders in early November and offers 15- to 30-pound broad-breasted turkeys. Daigle says a fresh turkey doesn’t compare with a grocery store bird.
“It’s the best turkey you can get,” says Daigle, who only sells during the Thanksgiving season. “Once you eat one, you’ll be back next year. The people at your dinner table will be back.” He likens his business it to a community event and enjoys seeing his repeat customers year after year. “It’s a community thing, a community Thanksgiving. The community has grown to expect these good turkeys,” he says.
In Haverhill’s Bradford section, Chris’ Farm Stand at Silsby Farm is owned and operated by Chris and Marlene Stasinos, and their son, Andrew, 23, who has a degree in sustainable agriculture from UMass Amherst, and Elizabeth, their daughter, 19, a Marine currently station in Okinawa, Japan. About 10 years ago the family started offering fresh, all-natural turkeys for Thanksgiving in an effort to diversify their line of sustainable farm products.
“Turkeys are a great addition to our farm,” Marlene Stasinos says. “We give them the best possible life they can have.”
Every summer, the farm receives about 300 poults, just a day or two old, she says. They live in a temperature-controlled area and, when big enough, run free in protected open space. Their diet consists of grain and, occasionally, electrolyte-balanced water. They also peck at leftover vegetables the farm harvests for its store and CSA.
The turkeys are raised without any hormones or antibiotics, she says, noting that “Let our family grow your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, naturally” is one of her husband’s mottos. Chris’ offers turkeys ranging from 12 to 35 pounds, with the processing of the birds handled off-site by a private service.
“They’re part of our sustainable process,” Marlene says, explaining that the turkeys produce fertilizer used to grow vegetables that the turkeys and humans eat, and then the turkeys “turn around and feed us.”
Whenever you obtain your turkey, farms ask that orders are placed early and that there’s room in your refrigerator for pickup a day or two before the holiday.
Techniques for preparing and cooking the bird vary from family to family. Most people roast the turkey, but frying it, smoking it or even grilling it are becoming more common. Some families use the same recipe every year, while others try new methods of preparation.
The general rule for choosing the correct size turkey is 1 pound per person, or 1 1/2 pounds per person if you want leftovers. Local turkeys are typically ordered by size, with the understanding that the bird you receive will be within 3 pounds of your preference. Most turkey sellers recommend cooking the bird at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound.
Wild turkeys often seen in flocks in suburban and urban areas nearly vanished from Massachusetts in the 19th century, according to the Mass.gov website. In the 1970s, the wild turkey population was replenished through the efforts of MassWildlife biologists who imported 37 turkeys from New York to the Berkshires. Now, the state’s official game bird population is about 25,000. While wild turkeys are legal to hunt in Massachusetts and New Hampshire during hunting season, most people prefer the taste and flavor of a farm-raised, white-feathered bird.
Raymond’s Turkey Farm
Elm Turkey Farm
Chris’ Farm Stand at Silsby Farm