SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Turkeys at Frith Farm are counting the days.
Since July, Daniel Mays has nurtured 100 feathered friends on his organic farm in Scarborough. From tiny hatches to bright-eyed birds that “cluck and pop and make all sorts of noises,” when they are happy, his broad-breasted bronze beauties are in demand as Thanksgiving nears.
“Every year we’ve doubled the number of turkeys we raise and we still sell out before November,” Mays said of his pasture-raised birds that forage in the open and feed on grass and organic grain. “It’s hard to keep up.”
As the buy-local, eat-local movement gains ground, a new bird is landing at the Thanksgiving table — turkeys raised with awareness by farmers with an ecological eye. Somewhere between microbreweries and small-batch coffee comes the artisanal turkey farmer. And Mays, 29, is its newest practitioner.
“I think people really enjoy a bird that’s had a happy life,” said the farmer, who moved to Maine three years ago to raise, chickens, pigs, lambs and turkeys. All livestock are rotated around his 14-acre farm a few miles from Route 1.
These pastured animals roam on fresh terrain, which makes them freer than free-range. The industry term can apply to birds kept in a warehouse, says Mays.
“It’s humane treatment of animals, but it’s really the cooking quality [that makes a difference],” he said.
By grazing on new turf every week, Mays’ turkeys get a diverse diet, exercise and are outside in the elements.
“One of my philosophies is to allow the animal to exhibit its species’ natural tendencies,” said Mays, who counts his humanistic Waldorf education as the genesis for his agricultural vocation. “We encourage the pigs to root and move through the woods in the leaves, the turkeys get to forage over pastures like a wild turkey would.”
Anyone who saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” knows where he is coming from. Once a week, after the lambs have mowed the field, he directs his flock to their new home, which he cordons off with a moveable fence. In addition to grass, they devour insects, soil and clovers. It’s all-natural and pesticide-free.
“They really thrive in that environment, they are good foragers, they are very verbally happy when they move,” said Mays, who has become so intimate with this gaggle he can mimic their gobbles and clucks.
“Such natural practices makes for a more deluxe taste and texture and cooking quality,” said Mays.
His philosophy has allowed him to increase his turkey harvesting fourfold in three years. The first year, he raised 25 birds, last year 50 and this year 100 turkeys will be slaughtered and sold just two days before Thanksgiving.
“Next year we hope to do 150, maybe 200. Basically as many as we could raise I think we’d sell,” he said.
The pasture-to-plate movement is quickly winning converts. Though it’s a pricey endeavour. Mays and other Maine farms, such as Whispering Wind Farms in Mechanic Falls, sell free-range birds for $4 or more a pound. Commercial grocery stores in Maine sell frozen birds starting at around 49 cents per pound around the holidays.
But Peter Dockendorf of Cumberland says a farm-fresh bird is worth every penny.
“The birds that Daniel does, they don’t even compare to organic or those that are naturally raised,” said the reiki master, who does not believe in “industrial meat.”
For the second year, Dockendorf will serve Frith Farm turkey to his family on Thanksgiving. This year, he bought two.
“It’s richer. Tastes more like turkey, rather than plain. It has a more robust flavor,” he said. “They are spectacular.”
Mays moves his turkeys to a new patch of grass every week and this treatment comes across in the taste.
“They are really happy on the farm, they like to be there and it translates to the end product,” said Dockendorf, who says a stressed bird is not a tasty bird. “They are out there exposed to the elements, in the sunshine. When birds are under stress they produce stress hormones, when they are happy, they don’t.”
Though stress is something a turkey farmer could experience this time of year, when their birds are big, hungry and the inevitable is on the way, Mays know that comes with the territory.
“They are not pets. It’s part of the cycle of being a farmer,” he said. “It’s physically hard, but very rewarding. Every day you can look back and see what you’ve done.”
When customers arrive two days before Thanksgiving, the birds that are between 14 and 25 pounds are bagged and ready.
“They grow amazingly fast. We process them here. It’s as fresh as you can get,” said Mays. “For the holidays they are really unmatched.”