HARPSWELL, Maine — The 90 or so turkeys heading to Thanksgiving dinner tables Thursday from Two Coves Farm will leave behind a small legacy come spring from their scratching, foraging and, well, other activities on the land.
Since July, farmers Joe and Laura Grady carted the flock of turkeys around in shared quarters, giving them access to new parts of the field, which they shared with Belted Galloway cattle, sheep, pigs and broiler chickens.
“Just like putting broilers out there, half the reason is for the impact of the pasture on the bird and the other half for the bird on the pasture,” Joe Grady said. “And for chickens and turkeys, it’s really about the manure.”
The couple and a team of four others processed about 88 of the turkeys on the farm Sunday, in anticipation of customers stopping by through Thanksgiving Day to pick up the birds that Grady said will make up about 5 percent to 6 percent of their business this year.
Production numbers aren’t available annually, but the latest agricultural census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the number of farms raising turkeys in Maine grew to 236 in 2012, up from 155 in 2007. Grady’s Harpswell farm is one of those that started in the intervening years.
Joe Grady said he has seen interest grow in buying local, pasture-raised turkeys, though Laura Grady said the pasture size and on-farm processing capacity likely will limit annual turkey production to around 100 per year.
“When you get beyond 100, you’re just talking about a whole different scale,” Laura Grady said. “Because we have them out on the pasture, about 100 is the perfect sized flock for our fields.”
The pasture-based farm on land the Gradys lease rotates various animals around the farm to help care for the soil that, in turn, provides nutrients for its grass-fed herds.
“Instead of paying someone to spread manure here, we’re ultimately getting paid for the turkeys doing it just like the cows and the sheep and everybody else,” Joe Grady said.
It’s a complicated system of inputs and outputs that, six years in, Joe Grady said the family is starting to evaluate more deeply, with the help of a $6,000 Farms for Maine’s Future grant it was awarded last fall by the Maine Department of Agriculture.
The grant allows the farm to pay for services to better understand its business and revise its business plan, which required digging a little deeper into the details.
Grady said he expects a final financial report on its business from a consultant in December, but early details indicate the kinds of insights that review might reveal.
“It appears that we’re spending about 3 cents a pound more to make hay than to buy it, once everything is factored in,” Grady said. “The question then becomes is that a real valid conclusion and then, if it is, why are we making hay?”
Grady said the waterfront farm plans to add wedding bookings and decrease or eliminate its youth camp events as it retools the business model, an effort he said came at the right time for the farm.
“The danger is that you just keep going, going, going and don’t ever take a look at what you’re doing because you’re trying to scramble to keep it all in the air,” Grady said.
Amid that scramble, there can be unexpected challenges.
In 2013, a mineral deficiency among the Thanksgiving turkey flock stunted the birds’ growth and left some customers unhappy, with birds smaller than expected.
“You want to feel bad about something? Mess with somebody’s Thanksgiving,” Grady said.
This year, more than half the turkeys in the farm’s storeroom packed and ready to go Tuesday were in the range of 20 to 23 pounds, at $5 per pound.
The situation left the Gradys with a less difficult-to-solve problem Tuesday afternoon, as one customer with dibs on a 15-pounder nonchalantly took the upsell.