For Maine’s pasture-raised turkey farmers and anyone looking for a fresh bird for the holiday table, there’s a lot to be thankful for this year.
“The turkey industry in Maine is doing very well,” according to Dr. Justin Bergeron, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “It was a really good production year this past year.”
That’s a far cry from two years ago when the highly pathogenic avian influenza — or HPAI — was responsible for the deaths of 7.5 million turkeys nationwide, creating a turkey supply shortage in 2015 and leaving many Maine growers with nowhere to turn to obtain that season’s new birds.
This year, there should be no issues for anyone looking to roast a fresh Maine turkey on Thanksgiving.
“I don’t see any reason why there will be a problem finding a fresh turkey,” said Diane Schivera, organic livestock specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and president of the Maine Poultry Growers Association. “A lot of the [turkey] farmers are starting to put information out on how to get a turkey.”
According to Bergeron, there have been no confirmed cases of HPAI infecting Maine turkeys to date, something he says speaks to the diligence of the state’s farmers.
“Our producers take biosecurity very seriously,” Bergeron said. “If it were to appear in Maine, it would likely be brought in from wild birds, but our producers really take steps to keep their flocks safe.”
Which means producers like CJ Walk at Peggy Rockefeller Farms, operated by College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, spend every day tending the birds as they grow from chicks up to 25-pound meat birds over the season.
“Our turkeys are all pasture-based,” Walk said. “We set up a heated space for them the first few weeks and when they are old enough we move them outside into movable shelters that get moved around once or twice a day.”
Once the turkeys are mature enough, they are transferred into electronic fenced-in areas that can be moved periodically onto fresh ground until they reach maturity at 16-to 22-pounds.
“Maine is a good place for turkeys,” Walk said. “When they do struggle it’s when there is a heat wave of major fluctuations in the weather [and] as long as we can make to the weekend before Thanksgiving without a major snowstorm, we are doing great.”
Jane Bell at Tide Mill Organic Farms in Edmunds, knows all about early snowstorms and what they can do to a flock.
“Six years ago we lost 300 turkeys in a big October snowstorm,” Bell said. “Now we have 800 on the ground and for the first time ever we will actually have enough for Thanksgiving [and] we are hoping for the first time ever to have fresh turkeys available for Christmas.”
Tide Mill sells its birds directly from the farm and wholesale to grocery stores from the midcoast region to Portland.
“We are taking orders now for our pasture raised, organic turkeys,” Bell said. “We slaughter them here on the farm so they are not still walking around when people come to pick up their turkey — unless they want the bird that way.”
Over at Peggy Rockefeller, Walk said they will be processing turkeys until five or six days before Thanksgiving to sell through Town Hill Market in Bar Harbor.
“We collaborate with Town Hill,” Walk said. “They have a signup sheet at the store and we process the turkeys and bring them to the store for them to distribute.”
Walk is raising 100 turkeys this year and said there are plenty still available.
“They are more expensive than a supermarket turkey, no doubt,” said Richard Simis, owner of Town Hill Market. “But everyone who has one says a fresh turkey is the best they’ve ever had and there is a reason for that — they are super fresh.”
Fresh, Maine-farm raised turkeys are going for around $5 a pound this year, versus the on-sale price of around .80 cents per pound of the supermarket birds.
“Buying local puts money back into the local economy and allows farmers like us to maintain the open space and heritage of farming throughout Maine,” she said. “Our turkeys are raised with respect and fed a diverse, organic diet of greens, grains and whatever they can find in the pasture [and] they are delicious.”
“When you buy local, you know who your farmer is and where that bird is from,” he said. “If someone wanted to come see how we raise our turkeys, they can just ask and we are happy to have them come take a look.”
And apparently, the word on Maine turkeys has gotten out.
“Our turkeys generally stay in the state,” Bergeron said. “But the product is so good there are those who visit Maine and pick up a turkey while they are here.”
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