Behold the turkey. In the wild, this large bird struts, cackles and gobbles its way through woods and fields; in the supermarket it is trussed and wrapped in plastic. In the wild, turkeys can nimbly fly; Thanksgiving turkeys, as the staff of "WKRP in Cincinnati" learned, are too fat to fly.
The star of this Thursday's feast is a more interesting creature than many might imagine. They aren't dumb - they just look stupid, tilting their head quizzically because they have monocular, not binocular vision, like us. Some will stare at the sky for long stretches for no reason -- even if it's pouring rain -- but that's because they have an inherited condition called tetanic torticollar spasms, not because they are imbeciles.
There are many myths about turkeys, especially when it comes to the Thanksgiving holiday. The idea that the Pilgrims sat down to a turkey feast with the Wampanoag in 1621 is largely a myth. No one really knows what was on the menu, but because turkeys are large enough to feed a whole table, the idea of including it on feast days like Thanksgiving (officially declared in 1939) seems natural.
And the idea that Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey over the eagle as the national symbol is also a myth. When Franklin first saw the design of the Great Seal, he criticized the skill of the engraver by saying the bald eagle looked more like a turkey -- which, in any case, Franklin did think was a nobler bird than the scavenging eagle.
Be that as it may, turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving. The National Turkey Federation estimates that 44 million turkeys will be consumed during the holiday, and that it will be the main course for 88 percent of Americans this year.
Most of those turkeys will be nothing like the wild turkeys that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag so mythically dined upon. The Broad Breasted White is the most widely used breed of turkey, and the one most commonly found in supermarkets. They are bred with genetic enhancements, and they are likely as not to be raised in huge commercial barns.
But there are options to supermarket birds. Among them are organic turkeys, such as the ones that are raised at Heritage Farm near Bowdon, perhaps the largest such operation in Carroll County.
The farm is owned by Greg Hutchins and his wife, and this year they raised a small flock of 130 turkeys, all of which were sold earlier in the year to local connoisseurs who find organic turkeys preferable to the artificially large, flash-frozen variety found in large retail outlets.
"Our turkeys are pasture-raised and they eat a lot of natural food (insects), and then we supplement them. We use a certified organic feed we have shipped in from Kentucky."
Heritage Farm isn't a turkey farm per se -- the Hutchins raise a just about everything you can think of, including fruit, berries, bees, crops and herbs. And, of course, animals.
"I have a pasture-based organic farm and we raise a variety of different poultry -- turkeys, and ducks and chickens -- and we also raise goats, sheep rabbits, cows and pigs. We do a little bit of all of it."
"We do it as a business, but we started it more of as a hobby and for feeding ourselves," Hutchins said. "And it's a very rewarding way to make a living. It's probably some of the hardest work I've ever done, but we get a lot out of it as well."
Until they began raising turkeys, the Hutchins had no experience in turkey farming, but the couple took to it naturally enough.
"My wife and I both came from farm families, so taking care of and raising livestock was part of our life growing up, so it was a pretty easy transition," he said. "What was hard was getting used to the different nuances of the different animals. Also, trying to figure out the best way to take care of an animal like that in an organic format, because you can't really use the same kind of medicines, or the same kind of herd management techniques. You can't really do that in an organically based farming model."
Hutchins knows there are other organic farmers nearby who raise small-batch flocks of poultry, but he knows of no one else in Carroll County who is doing it on the scale of Heritage Farm -- or raising turkeys especially.
"We only do the turkeys, usually, once a year. Sometimes we'll do a few in the spring, but they are primarily sold as holiday birds for Thanksgiving. And we have a few customers who reserve them for Christmas."
The Hutchins obtain their chicks from a variety of hatcheries across the United States, including as far away as Pennsylvania.
"We don't do the quick-growing white birds like you see in the conventional turkey houses and things like that," Hutchins said.
They sell -- or, more accurately, presell -- their birds as early as April, when they take orders from patrons of farmers markets around the metro area, or from visitors to their website. So, if you have a hankering for an organic bird for Thursday, you are out of luck.
"By this time of the year, we have to turn down a lot of people, unfortunately. By the time November is here, we have already committed to how many we're going to grow during the season, so we have a limited supply of what's available."
This year, the Hutchins had about 150 birds to offer in the spring, of whom about 130 survived to be harvested.
Hutchins doesn't sell live animals. His turkeys are trucked to Kentucky, where they can be processed at an FDA-inspected facility. There are no small-batch poultry processors in Georgia, and the Kentucky facility is the nearest that also provides the kinds of quality controls the Hutchins require.
"It's a long way to go; a lot of riding, a lot of hauling, but we think it's worth it at the end of the day."
In fact, Hutchins took a refrigerated truck to Kentucky just last week to bring the processed animals back for distribution to his customers.
The time between the pre-sales and the harvest determine how big the birds get -- the Hutchins don't grow them to a specific weight. But, he said his turkeys are comparable to supermarket varieties, averaging 17-18 pounds, the toms a little heavier.
"It's comparable in size to what you would find in the grocery store, but totally exceptional to what you would find as far as quality and flavor."
Organically and locally grown turkeys have proved to be a good seller, precisely because they are raised that way. And he has a lot of regular customers who return each holiday season.
"Most people that eat one say it's the best turkey they've ever had."