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Free Bird

Springfield Farm in Sparks is one of the few places to get free range Narragansett turkeys—just like the colonists had

Photo: Photographs By Sam Holden, License: N/A

Photographs By Sam Holden

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A


Up close, male Narragansett turkeys resemble aliens. You scarcely notice the diminutive beak, obscured by a lumpy blue-and-red mottled piece of flesh called a snood. The snood connects to the caruncle. This furrowed, technicolored flesh—it looks like an especially wrinkly autumn gourd—trails up the tom’s head, past its beady eyes, and bubbles out and down the long, craned neck, sagging at the throat and terminating in the wattle, a bright-scarlet bulge reminiscent of the folds in a brain. And then, without transition, the entire palette changes: black-and-white plumes fan out, making the bird look like a desaturated, plus-sized peacock. This creature bears no likeness to the five-fingered tracings your second-grade teacher had you make around Thanksgiving.

A rafter of turkeys clusters together in a pasture at Springfield Farm, in Sparks, Md. About half the group is outside the fence, for these Narragansett turkeys—a breed descended from the original turkeys brought over by New England colonists—sometimes fly the coop. They strut to and fro, staying packed together as they do, occasionally pecking at the ground. They murmur and chirp.

Catherine Webb, one of the owners of the family farm, stands at the edge of the coop. She whistles, sending an aural ripple through the calm rafter. The birds come to a jolting stop and collectively send up a gobble. “You can make the noise and they’ll interact with you,” Webb says. “They come close to us because they’re interested, they’re curious. Where the chickens, they’ll eat a stink bug and”—she crinkles her face to simulate a bewildered chicken—“and 10 minutes later, they’ll eat another one. The turkey’s a little bit smarter.”

Springfield’s reputation precedes it these days, 12 years after David Smith, the family patriarch, began selling eggs from a flock of 25 chickens to neighbors. What started out as a sort of pet project for his wife, Lilly, evolved into an extended-family operation: Smith’s two daughters, Webb and Valerie Lafferty, manage the farm’s store and coordinate with farmers markets and restaurants; Valerie’s husband, Douglas, is the farm’s livestock manager; two of Webb’s daughters, Rachel and Jennifer, work at farmers markets every weekend; the Laffertys’ son, David, and daughter, Danielle, occasionally work on the farm too. Restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen, Atwater’s, and Gertrude’s carry Springfield Farm products. Eddie’s in Mount Vernon, Graul’s in Hereford, and the Annapolis Whole Foods sell their meat and eggs.

Among the myriad animals at Springfield—2,100 chickens, 12 pigs, 30 lambs, 12 cows, five cats, four horses, three dogs, two donkeys, two guinea pigs, among others—the Narragansett turkeys, the only breed on the farm, number about 600, the maximum the 67-acre farm raises each year. Americans consume an estimated 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, making Springfield’s turkeys the .001 percent. Each November, the farm sells out. By the time the pick-up weekend arrives, there’s a waiting list for the turkeys.

Of the thousands of turkeys sold locally for Thanksgiving every year, most are of the supermarket variety—generic-brand, Butterball, Shady Brook Farms, Nature’s Promise. But some Baltimoreans opt for a better bird, a heritage-breed bird, which, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, must be reproduced through natural mating; have a long, productive lifespan, and be raised at a slow growth rate. Springfield, Carriage House Farms in Stevenson, Sycamore Spring Farm in Frederick, Chestnut Creek Farm in Westminster, and a few others raise heritage breeds.

The choice to buy a farm-fresh turkey is one mostly of principle. The Narragansetts at Springfield move from the brooder to the pasture at about 6 weeks old, “when they’re old and feathered enough to withstand the cold,” Catherine Webb explains. They can pick and choose their meals: In addition to their feed (a mix of cracked corn, roasted soy bean meal, calcium, and an organic vitamin, mineral, and pro-biotic supplement specially formulated for their nutrition), the birds forage for grubs, worms, and other insects. They mature naturally, over eight months. As a result, their flavor is better, their meat juicier, more tender. “It tastes like it’s supposed to taste,” Webb says.

But a happy, healthy, naturally raised bird costs considerably more. Giant’s generic turkey sells for 59 cents a pound; Shady Brook Farms brand sells for 99 cents; the grocery store chain’s organic offering, Nature’s Promise, goes for $2.29 a pound. Springfield sells its Narragansetts for $8 a pound. It also sells an antibiotic-, chemical-, and growth-stimulant-free Broad-Breasted White turkey for $3.50 a pound and pastured Broad-Breasted White for $4.50 a pound; these non-heritage-breed turkeys hail from Locust Point Farm, an Elkton-based poultry farm that adheres to all-natural feeding and humane raising and processing practices. Because of the price, the Broad-Breasted Whites are a little easier to swallow. “People tend to work their way up to the heritage turkey,” Webb says.

Heritage turkey breeds like the Narragansetts came close to extinction not too long ago. When Roger Mastrude, president of the California-based Heritage Turkey Foundation, started his foundation in 2000, he estimates that only five heritage breeds of turkeys remained out of 12 breeds. All the breeds were down to “maybe 1,000 breeding hens,” Mastrude says.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the various heritage breeds on its website. Bourbon Reds, which have chestnut plumage, and Standard Bronze turkeys, formerly the most popular breed in America, are at “Watch” level, having made a decent comeback in the past decade. The Jersey Buff, Chocolate, and Lavender/Lilac breeds are “Critical,” along with two varieties of white-feathered turkeys bred to be small. Narragansetts fall in the “Threatened” category. As the names indicate, turkeys’ plumage was variegated before the Broad-Breasted White became a behemoth of a breed. Mastrude recalls the birds’ faded beauty: “They used to show turkeys. [The birds] used to look good, they were a point of pride for farmers.”

Beginning around 1930 and intensifying greatly in the ’50s and ’60s, farmers began using breeding practices designed to beget a big turkey in a short window. The birds “grew fast and they grew big,” Mastrude says. “When you do that, you get a turkey that’s too big for its skeleton, basically. They lost their ability to move quickly, and they lost their ability to get off the ground.”

Poultry producers catered to consumer preferences for larger breasts and wing muscles. They began selectively breeding—often relying on inbreeding—a new standard-bearer of consumer turkeys, the Broad-Breasted Bronze, which displaced what we now call heritage breeds. Soon, the resulting turkeys could no longer mate naturally. Their conformation had changed; their bodies became compressed, their legs shortened by 2-3 inches, their breasts were pushed up, Mastrude says. Breeders continued to tweak turkeys’ genetic makeup, selecting white-feathered turkeys for their skin’s pigment (the melanin in the Bronze varieties showed up on their skin). And so the Broad-Breasted White breed’s monopoly on the Thanksgiving dinner table commenced.

Breeds like the Narragansetts and the Bourbon Reds were, by comparison, too physically small. (Indeed, Springfield Farm’s heritage turkeys max out at 16-17 pounds—not quite suitable for your 20-plus-person Turkey Day gathering.) Some small farmers and hobbyists kept them intact through the 20th century. Then, the local food movement restored interest in traditional breeds. On the West Coast, Mastrude says, you can buy them in grocery stores and farmers markets. In Maryland, at least 37 farms sell turkeys directly to customers; of those, eight advertise heritage breeds on the Maryland Department of Agriculture website.

Scarcity alone, however, isn’t enough to justify an $8-per-pound bird. While a Springfield Farm-raised turkey suffers the same fate as a Butterball, the journey to the slaughterhouse is a much more pleasant one.

When asked about raising turkeys, Catherine Webb gets as warm-and-fuzzy as one can about fowl that’s bound for a platter: “From start to finish, when you collect the eggs and you sort them . . . and then hatching them: there’s nothing like going in in the morning and finding them cracking [through] the shells and peeping, and then you carefully put them in the warming tray and they finish hatching and then you put them in the brooder. You get to watch them develop.” Webb isn’t overly sentimental about the birds—there’s simply too many to get attached, she says—but she enjoys bringing them up.

In the spring, Springfield’s parent Narragansett mate without any help. (“Mother Nature knows best!” chimes David Smith.) After hatching, the poults, or baby turkeys, stay in the brooder building, which Webb’s brother-in-law Douglas Lafferty readies with heaters and sawhorses, for the poults to roost in at night. Once they graduate to the pasture, they’re herded nightly into an enclosure for predator protection. Each morning, Lafferty or another family member lets the turkeys out at sun-up. The farmhand places feed in front of the turkeys and checks their water to ensure it’s the right temperature.

Unlike their weighed-down cousins in factory farms, the Narragansetts are free to fly. “They usually, unintentionally, fly out in the process of exercising their wings,” Smith says, “but immediately come back to the fence area to try to bet back to the group—they infrequently figure it out, so we must help.”

Springfield passes on certified organic feed, as the nearest supplier at the quantity they require is in the Midwest and importing isn’t in sync with their principles. Instead, they get their feed from Bowman’s, in Westminster., which sources locally produced grains. The turkeys’ diet is natural, but not vegetarian per se. “I know there’s people who are concerned about animal byproducts,” Webb says. “We don’t give any of that to our animals, [but] if they’re outside, they’re going to eat bugs and worms. So they’re not vegetarians.” The turkeys also graze on different sections of the pasture, as Lafferty moves the coop each time they have pecked away all of the clover and grass beneath their clawed feet. (The rotating pasture also ensures the birds stay on fresh ground.)

In an industrial farm, poults lose their toenails early on, to prevent them from clawing any other turkeys to death once they’ve grown to full size. Their upper beaks, too, are mechanically clipped to prevent them from hurting each other, which inadvertently forces them guzzle rather than peck at their feed. As they fatten up and feather, they’re crammed into a barn where they cannot roost.

“Most everything is automated,” Smith says, “feed, water, lighting, thermostatically controlled ventilation.” The birds aren’t exposed to sunlight. Their excrement builds beneath them, as they are wedged in close, so their feed is fortified with antibiotics, which also speed their growth. Factory-farmed turkeys can beef up to 35 pounds in as little as five months.

Springfield’s turkey eggs hatch during and through early spring and mid-summer, and fully mature birds are, uh, “processed” in mid-November, about a week before Thanksgiving.

The night before processing—the gentler term for butchering—Springfield crew transports their turkeys to Locust Point Farm, in Elkton. The rafter, loaded into ventilated crates (“some 15 birds in each,” Smith estimates), settles in for the evening and meets its holiday fate the next morning. The birds are individually suspended by their feet and a processor quickly cuts their throats. Next, they’re submerged in hot water for about 45 seconds. De-feathering, afterward, involves “a drum of sorts with rubber fingers around the inside walls as well as on a rotating plate on the bottom,” Smith describes. “They are ‘tumbled’ herein about a minute to remove the feathers softened by the hot water.”

Then, the feather-free bird is hung by its feet on a conveyor and its organs are taken out by processors. The feet, head, and any remaining feathers are removed, and “the body cavity and exterior are detail-cleaned and washed.” At the end of the line, the turkey comes off the conveyor, its legs tucked in, and it’s placed in an ice-water bath “to get the internal body temperature below 40 degrees as quickly as possible,” Smith says. Another inspection follows. After draining the bird of excess water, its giblets are placed inside the body cavity and it’s vacuum-packed for sale.

A USDA inspector watches everything, and because of the careful butchering at Locust Point, Springfield’s fowl has never been rejected, consistently passing the standards for cleanliness without any chemical aid. “In the commercial butchering process,” Webb says, “the machines, they’ll eviscerate them . . . and they’ll always break something, [and] the bile [will] get inside the animal, so they’ll have to dunk them in a chlorine bath.” At Locust Point, a limb sometimes breaks in the plucking process, and the turkey is downgraded to Grade B. But “when that happens, we just cut the turkey up and we’ll have turkey breast and the thighs and legs separate.”

Daniel Brafman, a holistic health practitioner, adds that many industrially raised turkeys are injected with artificial flavors—usually saline solutions and vegetable oils—after butchering in order to enhance taste. He notes that the feed given to factory-farmed turkeys is often contaminated with fungus and other pathogens. Brafman, a Springfield Farm customer since last spring, also adds that “animals store toxins in fats, especially when their detoxifying organs are overwhelmed.” Since factory-farmed turkeys live in a toxic environment, their skin should not be consumed, according to Brafman. “The skin of Springfield’s turkeys,” on the other hand, “should be enjoyed for the excellent taste and health-supporting, fat-soluble vitamins.” The pastured birds’ unlimited access to sunlight amplifies their nutritional value, as it produces fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin D, especially in the skin and liver. This year’s turkey will be Brafman’s first from Springfield, and he plans to roast it with “fresh rosemary, lemon, garlic, sea salt, pepper, and love . . . lots of love.”

Of all the differences between a grocery-store bird and a Springfield Farm turkey, taste persuades the most skeptics of the bird’s superiority. The farm-fresh turkey—even the Broad-Breasted White variety from Locust Point—cannot be rivaled in this sense. Because they largely spend their life outside, the Narragansetts have more muscle and their meat stays pinkish even after cooking. They retain moisture and flavor. One need not slather on cranberry sauce and gravy to make it palatable.

Webb admits to having once bought the biggest grocery-store turkey for the lowest possible price. She began eating farm-fresh turkey when her father started raising the birds on the farm in 1999. “The first time that we processed one [of the homegrown turkeys] and put one in the oven, we thought that we were going to have to cook it for nine or 10 hours because we were cooking a 30-pound bird,” she remembers. “It was done in five and a half hours. . . . It’s the natural juices. We don’t inject them with anything. And it cooked faster even though it was on a lower temperature.”

Frank Cunningham has bought Springfield Farm turkeys for three years now. The Loyola University philosophy professor occasionally takes students to the land the Smith family lets to Simmer Rock Farms CSA—directly across Yeoho Road. “I like their heritage birds because I like the idea of returning to a bird that hasn’t been bred to meet demands that make it freakish,” Cunningham says. “A bird that can’t fly and that needs to be artificially inseminated is not a bird I want to use for a celebratory feast.” The taste, he says, is incomparable with “what you get in even a very good supermarket.” The turkey’s stuffing hasn’t been finalized, but Cunningham guesses that apples, dried raisins, and apricots will be in the mix.

Thomas Rudis, owner of the Golden West Café, describes Springfield’s turkey as fantastic. Reached by phone at the end of a long day, a sleepy Rudis remembers that he had a Butterball last Christmas. “It was fine. It almost tasted engineered in a way. . . like maybe they injected it with something.” He absolutely prefers Springfield’s fowl, adding that the skin is thicker and seals juices in the bird. “The thing of it is, a Butterball is probably going to be a lot easier for the average person, but the person who wants a good turkey is going to do more than that.”

This year, Rudis is spending Thanksgiving near Lancaster, Pa., so his turkey will be local to that area, but he likes to brine his Springfield turkey every year, especially emphasizing that the bird rests for 45 minutes once it’s out of the oven.

Though he shies away from the subject a bit, Rudis played a somewhat elemental role in Springfield Farm’s growth as a business. He discovered the Smiths’ property while on a Sunday drive through Baltimore County. After buying some eggs, he returned the next week and asked if they were interested in supplying eggs for his restaurant. “I always feel a little demure because they say I was their first customer, which is true. But someone would have stopped by. I just happened to be the one that did it.”

The jaunt to Sparks from Baltimore is a scenic one, even on pick-up weekend in mid-November, when what foliage remains has faded to a uniform beige. Hilly, winding roads cut through patches of forest and field. You pass little churches and a quaint general store. The farm buzzes with activity. A dozen cars line the driveway. By its store, a few vendors have set up, selling homemade pies, local wine, root vegetables. Volunteers—friends and relatives of the Smith, Lafferty, and Webb families who return every year—man stations for picking up the turkeys, stored in a refrigerated truck. After the hubbub of the weekend, the group celebrates a separate Thanksgiving. They cook a Broad-Breasted White large enough to feed the 25 to 30 people in the bunch, a turkey so large that it takes two people to turn it over halfway through roasting. Even with the bounty of fresh ingredients the family has access to, they stick to salt and pepper. “[We] don’t stuff it, don’t use any garlic, herbs—just plain,” Catherine Webb says. “It used to be you’d get the turkey and, ‘It’s all about the sides!,’ you know? . . . When you’ve got a bird that tastes that good, we have found that we enjoy eating the turkey.”

Roosters crow from a barn beyond a small pond where a bevy of white geese swim. You can meander across Yeoho Road to one of the henhouses; some brown chickens have settled in the lowest branches of a small tree in the adjacent coop. The flock clucks quietly, continuously. Further afield live the parent Narragansetts, blithely unaware of their own luck. David Smith is there, showing a visitor the birds. He puts his hands above his mouth and calls out, “haaa.” The rafter erupts in gobbles.

Back by the driveway, customers with heavy brown paper bags in arm walk to their cars, parked on grass studded with stray white feathers. They smile cheerfully, greeting others. Bucolic simplicity seems to have that effect, even at $8 a pound.

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