You couldn't exactly call the turkeys at Blackberry Meadows Farm "free-range" birds: "We tried that once and they all escaped," says Jen Montgomery, who co-owns the Natrona Heights farm with Greg Boulos.
But the farm's 13 turkeys do enjoy access to fresh air and light. In fact, they got a first — and last — taste of winter weather on Nov. 12.
The next morning brought "processing day," when Montgomery and Boulos, along with dedicated volunteers, turned their brown-feathered flock into packaged, cleaned birds.
The National Turkey Federation estimates that 45 million birds are killed each year for Thanksgiving. Most are raised "conventionally" in large operations, where they are typically debeaked, kept in cramped quarters, and bred with breasts so large they prohibit natural reproduction.
Operations like Blackberry Meadows offer a different approach. These birds arrived in June, as one-day-old "poults" in a "peeping box" at the post office, then remained in the farm's brooder hut for their first six weeks.
But rather than ending up in a windowless barn with hundreds or thousands of other birds, as is the industry standard, the Blackberry Meadows turkeys moved into a mobile hut on skids. The open-bottom wire structure was pulled around the farm to ensure the birds access to fresh grass, along with air, light and (rather expensive) GMO-free feed.
Blackberry Meadows operates a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which customers sign up for year-long subscriptions to its produce. All 13 of this year's birds have been claimed by subscribers, many of whom "have met their Thanksgiving dinner already" during farm visits, says Boulos.
And instead of the Broad Breasted White turkeys that are the industry standard, Blackberry Meadows offers a "heritage breed" known as the Broad Breasted Bronze. "The quality is better," says Montgomery, "it's juicy and flavorful."
As the year's first snow melted, the turkeys were handled with care. Intense physical labor was poured into the long, non-mechanized process that includes hand-plucking each bird. The turkeys do cost around $4 per pound, as compared to the $1.80 per pound a frozen turkey costs at Giant Eagle. But arguably, you get what you pay for.