Turkeys are often the main course of Thanksgiving dinner. However, the origins of the birds and how they are raised can vary depending on who gets them.
Dawnbreaker Farms owner Ben Grimes has been operating his farm in North Carolina with pasture-raised poultry, ducks, and turkeys since 2014.
”This is a very different model from the typical commercial production model which is going to be indoors, climate-controlled,” he explained.
This environment isn’t what most people imagine when they think about large-scale poultry operations.
“We’re using our animals not just for economic gain, but for the environmental benefit they can have on a piece of land,” Grimes said. “More sustainable, I’d even say the word being tossed around a lot is regenerative.”
There’s a lot that goes into raising turkeys.
“The U.S. turkey industry in 2020 produced about 214 million turkeys and Americans consumed right around 16 pounds of turkey per person,” said Beth Breeding, spokesperson with the National Turkey Federation. “Turkey production has changed over the years. We are able to use a lot of technology in what we’re doing now on the farm and that certainly helps with the impact of production.”
No matter what type of turkey farm you are operating, the same inputs will be required.
“Not a lot of labor goes into each turkey but there’s a lot of corn and soybeans that go into each turkey,” Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California Davis, said.
“Our marketplace wants to be eating poultry, pork and beef. Without grain inputs, you can’t eat pork or poultry. There is not a good alternative substitute for anything at scale,” Grimes said.
He stated that grains were a necessary evil for this industry.
“While their impact directly on my land is highly beneficial, it does require the production of grain on someone else’s land and the deterioration of the quality of that land to produce the regeneration on this land,” Grimes said.
Cultivated meat is another option being considered.
“All of the technology is there. All the technical know-how exists. It’s just in terms of applying it to producing protein?” Paul Mozdziak,A professor at NC State University said. He is an expert on cellular agriculture.
“What this could look like is instead of having your local farmer you’ll have your local in vitro meat producer,” Mozdziak said.
“They may be talking about trying to grow turkey meat in a lab but nobody is talking about growing the whole turkey….we’ll all be watching carefully 50, 60 years from now,” Sumner said.
“It does answer some of our questions in terms of animal welfare and some of the environmental problems we have in our food system,” Grimes said.
Grimes indicated that such a move could be unnatural for the industry, as more highly-processed foods are being introduced.
“I truly believe raising animals in a way that mimics natural systems is the best way,” he said.
Although the price of one of his turkeys might be higher, most people get what they pay for.
“It’s going to be 10, 15 times more expensive,” Grimes explained. “You’re paying for a happy turkey and the environmental regeneration of our food system.”
Farmers are gearing up to sell turkeys during the busiest period of the year.
“What I would say to folks that are really interested in the environmental consequences of their meals — one thing to do is make sure you eat it all,” Sumner said. It is because the resources used to make it are already there, so it doesn’t matter if you eat it.
“I don’t think that I have the perfect system but I do believe that what I’m doing can be a bridge to the future,” Grimes said.