I write this swaddled in the sweet late-night afterglow of a perfect Thanksgiving spent with my wonderful family. We enjoyed one of the best turkeys I've eaten, and unquestionably the best turkey I have ever prepared. And I say that with confidence, having purchased the little bugger 7 months ago for $15 as a tiny chick who was handled by countless careless grubby hands as part of an Easter petting zoo.
I raised him on organic feed, named him Bonnie (accidentally mistaking him for a female- I still have the hen, Clyde), and watched him grow into a big, handsome heritage breed Tom. This is the second year in a row I have raised a heritage breed turkey for my family, and it is with no small amount of pride that I have done so. And in this doing, it has occurred to me that offering this opportunity to others- to slaughter their own bird- could be an intensely satisfying, edifying, and perhaps even life-changing experience.
This is the story about how that almost happened, and then really didn't. And by did not, I mean miserably, painfully, horrifically failed. Almost certainly my most intense failure to date out here on the farm...
The first week of July, I received a shipment of ducklings by post. 25 perfect little baby ducks. But in that shipment, I found, much to my shock, 8 tiny baby turkeys. This occurred a week or so after I began musing about raising a small turkey flock to share in the aforementioned fashion. Just as I was doing the calculations, gauging interest, and determining if I could swing it... these turkeys literally fell into my lap. I called the hatchery to inquire about these little guys whom I had not ordered. What breed were they? For what reason were they included in my duckling order? The lady at the hatchery curtly informed me that they don' t raise turkeys at the hatchery, and suggested that perhaps they were guineas? She insisted that there was no way they sent me turkey chicks.
And yet, there they were- 8 perfect, adorable, big-eyed, fuzzy little FREE TURKEYS, nay, FREE MIRACLE TURKEYS!!!!
My excitement could scarcely be contained.
And then the fun began. After the first night in a coop whose door had been shoddily constructed by a volunteer, 2 were clearly missing. Eventually we determined that a raccoon had pulled them through a small gap in the door. 2 down, 6 to go.
They were moved into a large outdoor pen that was extremely secure. The next morning, many of the little guys had swollen eyes and red raised spots- mosquito bites! Horrified, I sealed up the entire coop with window screen, swearing that my little MIRACLE TURKEYS would never be bothered by mosquitoes again. And while they were not, they also seemed to be having a bit of a time, as the mosquito bites scabbed over, some bites grew bulbous and some outright monstrous. In fact, they seemed to get worse by the day. Eyes were obscured by these grotesque growths, and even as the birds were growing large enough to free range during the day, some were practically blind with these growths. Turkey pox. Transmitted by mosquitoes.
Like those spectacular orchids who have evolved to be pollenated only by some very special, specific insects- each strain of pox is unique to a bird species, and is transmitted by an infected mosquito carrying a specific strain. My baby turks just got "lucky", I suppose. One just dropped dead one day. And then another a couple of days later. 4 down. 4 to go.
I began to whittle down the list of people whom I had promised the Ultimate Turkey Experience to. Then one got his head snapped in a rat trap. He recovered, but not entirely. I had to force feed him by hand each morning and each evening. Then another poult died. 5 down, 3 to go.
After a month of extensive hand feeding "Snap-Head," I came to the realization that I was going to have to put him down, he was failing to thrive and I couldn't afford the time I was spending on him. 6 down, 2 to go.
Things seemed to be looking up. I doted on the 2 remaining turkeys. My little miracles. My little nightmares. One afternoon, one of them simply perished, after having made it so far. 7 down, 1 to go.
I felt a cautious optimism as the weeks passed and Goose, the remaining turkey thrived. He slept in the coop with the chickens and the three petting zoo turkeys, free ranged all day. I had become overly protective of this little bird, my little survivor. So you can imagine my horror the day the 3 bigger turkeys pecked him to death.
And so it goes. The "Free" turkeys I had invested countless hours in, treating their alarming pox, easing their strange injuries, hand feeding, hoping, lovingly caring for... All gone. Easy come, HARD go.
And so, once again, the hard lessons of agriculture rear their ugly heads, reminding me not to count my chickens before they're hatched, not to assume anything, and most importantly, to remember that much like a mythical "free lunch"- there is no such thing as a free turkey.
Maybe next year...