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This is part of a new monthly series called “Crossing the Cape Fear.”

“Raising turkeys is a big risk,” observes Kyle Stenersen of Humble Roots Farms, as we stand amongst hundreds of curious turkeys in a nearby pasture. “Everyday you come out and they are still here is a blessed day. I know what it feels like to come out here and there be piles of feathers everywhere.”

Heritage Turkeys Wilmington NC
Photography by Tom Dorgan

This is Stenersen’s third year raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. He’s raised them in the past when he worked for other farms, so he already understood the protocol, and more or less, what to expect when he got started.

“The first year was not so fun,” he admits. “ I raised a heritage breed called Bourbon Red, and the heritage breed turkeys have a vastly different behavioral pattern then a hybrid turkey. So, for instance, with these hybrid turkeys, they’ll stay inside this net.”  Stenersen points to the large mobile electric fenced-in pen he is walking toward.

“Heritage breed” simply means a pure line that’s been around for about 50 years or more. A lot of times the breast meat can be more narrow, they’re not as heavy, they can jump higher and they tend to have more wild turkey traits. Take flying. While heritage turkeys can’t take off as well as its wild cousin, they can get over a fence with relative ease.

“With Heritage Turkeys, they’ll just jump over the net and go wherever they want,” Stenersen confirms. “I was trying to sell a hundred turkeys that [first] year and ended up selling 50 because all the other ones ran away or got eaten.”

This hybrid turkey breed he is standing with today is Broad Breasted Bronze, a cross between two or three different heritage breed turkeys. They can’t fly at all, they’re heavier and have more meat on their bones in general.

Though his first year didn’t work out according to plan, Stenersen wasn’t discouraged—as reflected by roughly 275 turkeys now walking around the farm.

This Thanksgiving season Stenersen is taking orders right up until Thanksgiving Day—depending on availability—and plans to have a waiting list established. In the case of day-of purchases, folks can call Humble Roots at 910-538-3728.

“Last year, we didn’t have any turkeys available on the day of,” he warns. “And that was with 200 turkeys. This year we don’t have that many more— and we’re a little more established, we have returning customers. I hope to be sold out the week before Thanksgiving.”

If he has them, Stenersen will freeze any leftover birds and sell them throughout December, alongside his Christmas hams from his farm-raised hogs. Though it’s his first year selling hams, he already has about a dozen pre-orders. People in Wilmington are eager enough for the farm to table experience that they want to replicate it in their own home.

Humble Roots turkeys are going for $5 per pound, with a $20 deposit to reserve one, and on average the turkeys range anywhere from 18 to 20 pounds. And while the total cost is admittedly a bit more than the average Butterball found at the grocery store, Stenersen says the value is in the mission of the product.

“You see that price tag on a turkey and you have to evaluate if it is worth it,” he muses. “And there are three different criteria I think of when I think of whether it’s ‘worth it’: One would be is it worth environmental impact that these guys have over the confinement turkeys? Is it worth the health of the animal? (Which these animals are heads higher healthier—you can see them running around and they’re as happy as they’ve ever been. The ones in confinement are just sitting down,  their feathers are all weird and their heads are hanging low.) Then, is it worth your health? Because you are what you eat, and if that’s the case, if you eat a healthy turkey you become a healthy human.”

After thinking some more, Stenersen goes on to add a fourth criteria: flavor. Whether frying, brining, roasting, stuffing, or using your Great Aunt’s famous recipe, these turkeys tend to be moister and more flavorful. As for Stenersen, he’s opts for an old-fashioned roasted turkey.

“Last year we didn’t brine it and it was the most excellent turkey, you could really taste it,” he recalls. “They don’t dry out as quick as the confinement turkeys—because those are injected with liquid and these are not. It’s really an exceptional product that most people have never experienced and the people that do experience it they tell me this was the best turkey they ever had.”

Because turkeys are relatively fragile creatures, they started out in the brooder house for the first four weeks at Humble Roots. But these 13-week-old birds will remain free-range out in the field until they are 16 weeks old. They move the pin every week and will continue to do so until it’s time to harvest.

“This is more mimicking what a wild turkey would do,” Stenersen tells. “This is a migratory pattern. They were there [points to further back in the field] and we came here to a new crop of bugs and everything here.”

Between a steady feast of bugs and local non-GMO feed provided daily, Humble Roots turkeys get as much food and water as they want. And the bigger they get the more they can eat. Right now, most of these guys are about 7-9 pounds.

“You always think there’s no way they’ll get that big by Thanksgiving,” Stenersen adds. “But in three weeks they’ll double in size. It’s crazy how fast it will happen. . . . I dare you to give it a try and see how you like it. While you’ll spend more you also get a whole lot more.”

Even now, at this stage, the birds are too big to be concerned with aerial predators. But coyotes or the random dog are another story. Stenersen keeps his own dog, Foy, out near the flock at night to keep watch. “He has a loud bark but he also sometimes likes to snack on the turkeys—if he can catch them,” he quips.

“And, honestly, there’s no reason we got these things other than to harvest them,” he goes on, “but they get the best life possible. They were born to be eaten, but we are respecting them as a created being as much as we can; so that when we do harvest them, we kind of earned the right. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

Humble Roots is open to visitors Saturday and Wednesday mornings, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m., who also may (depending on availability) shop for eggs, pork, beef, lamb, chicken, and various produce. Check Humble Roots’ Facebook page for availability, or visit humblerootsfarm.com.

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