The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Buy a humanely raised turkey for Thanksgiving

November 2, 2013

Seasonal signs at my local food co-op.

Order early. Order early. Order early!

I write this three times because if you want to order a pastured turkey, small farms tend to sell out early, so mind the calendar — and pick up that phone!

Actually, wait. Before you pick up the phone, decide if you want a pasture-raised turkey or not. As you might know, turkeys evolved in the wild, where they could run around, flap their wings, eat insects, breathe fresh air, and nest in trees. On pasture-based farms, they get to do all that, so if that’s important to you (and taste, too — people say pastured turkeys taste better), expect to pay more — around $5 a pound. Why that price?  Pasture-based farmers have higher labor costs (they’re paying more attention to their animals than those factory farms do), and their birds grow slower, so grain costs are higher.

Alternatively, there’s the free-range option. On free-range farms, turkeys are kept in barns at night and during bad weather, but they’re let out during the day. How long are they let out, and are they let out onto grass or just bare ground? You’ll have to ask the farmer; free-range can mean many things. But expect to pay around $3 to $4 a pound. And although they might not be labeled “free-range,” certified organic turkeys fall under this category because they’re only required to have access to an outdoor space. “Organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “outside.”

Then there’s the kind-of-like-an-industrial-farm-but-not” kind of farm that raises turkeys indoors but with a bit more room than the standard factory farm. Expect to pay around $2 to $3 a pound.

(Now contrast all of these prices with the average price of a standard factory farmed turkey: around $1.50 a pound. I won’t put that price in bold & italics because Humaneitarian frowns on that kind of product, but it may be all you can afford.)


NOW you can pick up that phone. If you’re not sure where to find a pasture-based or free-range farm in your area, I suggest the following:

  • Pay a visit to your local food co-op. Find a store here. It will probably have signs advertising local turkeys for sale. But remember: the words “natural” and “local” don’t indicate a thing about how the birds were raised. Ask for “pasture-raised” or “free-range.”
  • Visit the website of your local farmers’ market. Some turkey farms might be listed there. You can find your farmers’ market here.
  • Visit FarmPlate or Local Harvest, two terrific websites where you can type in your zip code and local farms will pop up.

Or, your local supermarket or co-op may have a butcher’s counter or meat department that sells turkey produced by a big but responsible company. Read the label carefully or ask a meat department employee how the turkey was raised. (Some companies use free-range practices but don’t use that label.) If the meat department tells you the bird was raised naturally, or locally, or in Amish country, or without antibiotics, tell them sorry, that doesn’t indicate how the animal lived.

You can also visit Humaneitarian’s brand list to see if any major poultry companies raise animals in a way that is satisfactory to you. (I apologize — the list is short because it’s in development.) Beware of brands that simply say “humanely raised” on the packaging without giving any more details.

No matter what option you choose — pastured, free-range, or indoors-with-more-space — the organic version may cost more. Organic grain is costlier than regular grain, and organic practices incur more labor costs for farmers. Also, a heritage breed turkey may cost even more, as they take much longer to grow and thus require more feed and labor from the farmer.

Finally, on the big day, if you’re the one cooking and serving this precious bird, casually tell your guests where it came from and how it was raised. Let’s make Thanksgiving a chance to give thanks to farmers who treat their poultry with care, and a chance to tell your friends and family that you eat with care.

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