Time and turkey: preserving nature takes patience
“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time, we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” –Linda Hogan
A turkey is a turkey is a turkey. Or not.
In this season of thanks, cornucopias and the glorious bird, we might learn a thing or two from the “Chocolate Turkeys,” more accurately “Dindon de Chocolat.” This is a species that Loudon holistic farmer Jim Czack and his wife and business partner Annette Young work every day to preserve, along with the Embden Goose and a few other rare species.
Czack is a foodie, son of a master chef, livestock and poultry historian, geneticist, and farmer rolled into one, obsessed with genetic preservation and the patient lifestyle essential to its survival.
These turkeys, documented to the 1550s in France where a group of Jesuits became master breeders of Chocolate turkeys, were most likely transported to America during the Civil War, through trade between France and the south at Charleston. With the establishment of the post-World War II economy and the modern agricultural system, the days of the Chocolate turkey were numbered–critically endangered by the turn of the last century.
In 2007, Czack, living in Rye, agreed to his wife’s request to get some chickens. Turkeys followed when Czack, upon consulting the Livestock Conservancy, found that the Chocolate Turkey was endangered. In 2010, upon acquiring their Chocolate breeders, Czack and Young began their first genetic preservation project. They named their farm Elevage de Volailles (poultry breeding farm) in deference and gratitude to the early genetic preservation work of the French Jesuits.
Czack and Young eventually purchased a farm in Louden where today they raise waterfowl, poultry, and livestock in what can only be described as “the old-fashioned way,” using patient animal husbandry skills synchronized with nature. When you look around the meticulously kept 70-acre farm, you see a collection of waterfowl, poultry and livestock that are as gorgeous to look at as they are rare.
When Jim got tired of mowing grass, he decided to turn the grass over to rams and goats who would do an even better job. He acquired Black Welsh Mountain Sheep, of which there are only about 10,000 in the world, known historically in Wales as “The King’s Mutton.” Then came the Boer Goats, grass-eating goats (meat) goats; Nubian Goats (dairy); and San Clemente Island Goats, domesticated just 40 years ago on San Clemente Island in California, of which there are only about 500 in the world.
Add to that roster endangered Pekin ducks; Rouen Fonce ducks and Embden Geese. Raising turkeys, geese and ducks requires three to five different timetables. Raising ducks incorporates three different harvest times — seven weeks, 12 weeks and 18 weeks — roughly from March to December.
“What’s the point of raising waterfowl, poultry and livestock if you don’t listen to them,” said Czack simply. But the process of listening means changing the paradigm from factory production to nature’s timetable. Instead of fighting time and space, Jim embraces both.
Unlike typical “free range” grazing that involves moving a herd from grazing lot to grazing lot, Czack moves his herds and flocks every day, via mobile fencing, to 30 different paddocks each month, timed according to digestion science and a 30-day life cycle of naturally occurring parasites. The grass-feces-life cycle grazing makes the breed stronger and the pasture more fertile and sustainable.
Consumers and most chefs don’t really want to know about the patience part. “They glaze over when I try to explain. They really don’t want to know,” Czack said.
When it comes to turkey, change your paradigm. Most commercially raised turkeys are slaughtered as adolescents, 12-14 weeks, which means they have no fat. Czack raises his Chocolates up to 12 weeks longer, meaning they are adult turkeys, hence their fat content is much higher. But that difference costs Czack $40 more in feed per bird.
After a tour of the Elevage de Volailles, as I sit down in the farm kitchen, and partake of the moistest, tastiest mutton–as good as any Welsh lamb I have ever tasted–small chops Annette has pulled from the freezer to place on the grill, I am reminded how personal food is and how removed most of us are from those who make it possible.
Czack: “People are isolated behind their TV, phone and keyboard. Most people do not understand that the majority of farmers cannot pay their taxes and must take another full-time job to not lose the farm, so in essence, are subsidizing the consumer to buy their meat at a personal loss.”
Czack admits that Elevage de Volailles methods represent an extreme end of the spectrum, but he maintains hope that other sustainably-minded farmers could modify their methods to achieve a better balance.
Czack: “There is no doubt that we need factory farms to pump out food, lest people starve. These farms are vital to the nation as it is today. But you vote with your dollar. A balance can be brought to the table only when consumer values change enough to force the market to shift.”
Two chefs in the state support Elevage de Volailles–Chef Evan Hennessey of Stages at One Washington in Dover and Chef Cory Fletcher at Revival Kitchen in Concord.
Czack dreams about saving two more flocks–Emden Gans Geese, the 800-year-old species of which there are just 90 in existence in Germany–and the Dindon de Gers, the last remnant of original turkeys brought to Spain around 1599. The last Jim knew, there were only 50 left. What drives Jim is the fact that commercial selective breeding to manipulate the goose for better profits is already underway, in much the same vein as was accomplished with the Cornish Cross chicken and the Broad-breasted turkey.
What is involved in making it happen? “I do not have the time to leave the farm, let alone the money for airfare and travel to Germany or France,” Czack said. “Someone willing to do this would collect the eggs, bring them back and treat them with kid gloves. The genetics are so rare they are safer where they are than wasting them in death to shipping.”
Sounds crazy? Elevage de Volailles stands as an uplifting testament to the power of the individual to make a difference, even if at times it feels as like David facing Goliath.
Czack: “We need to understand how fragile our food system really is. If we keep going back to commercial feedstock farms, we will eliminate genetic diversity on the planet. What’s left? Artificially-inseminated turkeys that cannot breed or grow feathers?”
Visiting this extraordinary farm made be me think beyond the price of a “naturally raised” Thanksgiving bird, beyond the taste of yesteryear, and beyond simply splurging at a pricey restaurant. By drawing closer to nature, perhaps we can open up new perspectives about how to reconnect with and support our food supply, especially the farmers who make it happen.
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Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, biographer and poet and lifetime resident of New Hampshire. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.