As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal this week, you probably won’t want to think about how that golden turkey got to your table, or what kind of life it lived. But there’s a farm here in Virginia raising a breed of turkeys whose lives actually seem pretty idyllic. And for that, they (we?) give thanks. Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.
This is the sound of a turkey farm two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Yup, there’s no turkeys here.
JUDD CULVER: Yeah, a lot of people have been coming to try to see the turkeys and they're all gone.
That’s Judd Culver. He and his wife Cari run the Kelly Turkeys USA farm in Crozet, outside of Charlottesville. The turkeys they began raising here last year are a special breed called “Kelly Bronze.”
CARI CULVER: Hey handsome, you going to gobble?
Actually, there is still ONE turkey here. Though he refuses to gobble. He’s destined for a family’s yard, instead of a family feast. Cari Culver introduced me.
CARI CULVER: He is a beautiful bronze Tom Turkey. And he has gorgeous bronze feathers that in the sunshine have almost a rainbow effect.
This is the ONLY farm in the U.S. raising these Kelly Bronze turkeys. In fact, the eggs come from the U.K., courtesy of this guy.
PAUL KELLY: I’m Paul Kelly. I'm a turkey farmer from Chelmsford, Essex in England.
Paul Kelly is the “Kelly” in Kelly Bronze. He and his family have been raising these big, beautiful birds for 40 odd years in the UK, so he has lots of hands-on experience with them.
PAUL KELLY: I'm the Guinness world record holder for plucking a turkey. And I also hold the Guinness World Record for carving a turkey, so I’m the world’s fastest turkey carver. Isn’t that sad?
He’s also an expert gobbler. If you want to hear what a field full of Kelly Bronze turkeys actually sounds like, check out his gobbling demonstration video on YouTube …
(Sound from video clip)
PAUL KELLY: “Now what I’m going to do now is I’m going to be an aggressive male and gobble really loudly … (turkeys gobbling en masse)
When Paul decided to expand his family business from the U.K. to the U.S. — where demand for turkeys is far higher — he recruited Judd & Cari Culver. Judd is a poultry nutritionist, Cari is an immunologist. Both are graduates of Virginia Tech and experts in poultry science.
PAUL KELLY: Cari and Judd were incredibly hard working people, passionate about what we were doing, I mean I think that's half the battle.
The other half of the battle is raising these birds. Unlike turkeys on a traditional factory farm, these birds aren’t raised in cramped quarters. They roam free on a 16-acre field at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
CARI CULVER: They are bred to be wild so they're, they're very happy to be outside. And they do like their little nestled places in the woodlands at night when they roost for the night and rest. And then the llamas will come in and settle right next to them and lay back to back.
Did you catch that? She said llamas. The turkeys here are protected by an electric fence, security cameras and two llamas named Sequoia and Silk Buttons.
CARI CULVER: They kind of work together to to intimidate larger predators like bears and coyotes, and make sure that they’re nice and protected overnight.
Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it? At least for a turkey. But even pampered poultry eventually meets its maker. Which is why ten days ago, the fully mature birds said goodbye to their llama friends, and waddled their way down the driveway to this one-story steel-sided building just behind the main farm house.
JUDD CULVER: I always call it the barn, but it’s our processing facility.
(Sound of cooler roaring)
That’s the sound of the massive cooling system in a 2,000 square foot walk-in cooler. Nearly 1,300 hand-plucked turkeys are dry-aging here, hanging by their feet in metal racks. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is an essential part of the poultry preparation process perfected by Paul Kelly and his parents.
PAUL KELLY: When you’re aging the bird, when you’re hanging it, the collagen, the connective tissue in the meat is breaking down, and it’s just getting really, really tender and giving it more flavor.
But it’s not just the life and production process of a Kelly Bronze that’s unique. The packaging is unique as well. The turkeys are hand-packed and shipped to butchers in sleek black boxes, nestled with a sprig of rosemary, a meat thermometer, and a cook book. All of this exquisite attention is reflected in the price: these Kelly Bronze turkeys sell for $10-$12 a pound, as opposed to a buck or two a pound for a traditional turkey. But of course, Paul Kelly thinks it’s worth it.
PAUL KELLY: The hand plucking and the hanging, that artisan process costs so much money to do. But if it's the same as in England, people are willing to pay the premium for something that’s very special, and very good, and hopefully that's what will happen at Thanksgiving.
It certainly looks like that’s happening. Of the 1,300 birds that the Culvers raised this year in Crozet, only about 400 remain for both Thanksgiving AND Christmas. In fact, the family is feeling so optimistic about the Kelly Bronze, they plan to double their flock next year, eventually growing to 10,000 free range turkeys.
(Sound in the field)
CARI CULVER: You going to gobble for us?
Which ultimately — as long as you’re here early enough in the season.
(Sound in the field)
CARI CULVER: Going to do a gobble?
Means a lot more of this:
CARI CULVER: That was a good one buddy, that’s the money maker shot right there! (laughing)