Cody Patton remembers when he first heard about heritage turkeys, years ago on Martha Stewart's TV show and on a national news program.
He looked up the turkeys online and realized the "cool" fact that they were raised in Lindsborg. Suddenly his Thanksgiving was looking a lot more authentic.
"I like dark meat, and the turkey you get at the store, they've been so genetically altered to have a huge breast, and I wanted something with more balance," Patton, of Wichita, said. "I liked the idea of having something that was more natural, not all twisted around from what it was supposed to be in the first place. And then knowing it was in Kansas was even better, to be able to support the local community."
While green beans and potatoes aren't growing in Wichita this time of year, residents can still find some locally raised elements of a traditional Thanksgiving feast to put on the table — though some of them are so popular they're already sold out for this year.
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The reasons people go to the farmers market in the summer — to get fresh, healthy food from producers one can meet and talk to — translate to the holidays, too.
"People really enjoy fresh turkey. They're very, very good," said Phil Nisly of Phils Farm in Hutchinson. Nisly took orders for his fresh turkeys — not heritage, but pasture-raised, and without antibiotics — at the Kansas Grown Farmer's Market at 21st and Ridge Road this summer, and customers lined up this past Saturday to pick up their birds.
Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg is the largest grower of "heritage" turkeys in the country, said general manager Danny Williamson.
The heritage turkeys trace their lineage to birds "raised back before commercial turkeys came along," Williamson said.
"They can be traced back to Christopher Columbus," who took turkeys back to Spain, Williamson said. The birds are so in demand — being ordered not-so-locally by people in almost every state — that orders start in August, Williamson says. Smaller turkeys of 8 to 13.99 pounds are still available, but larger ones sell out early.
The taste of the heritage turkeys is "a little gamier" than that of commercially raised turkeys, Williamson says. "They will have a turkey flavor — what a turkey is supposed to taste like."
If you check the ranch's website (www.goodshepherdpoultryranch.com), you'll likely be transported not only by the turkeys' history but their price — a 16-pounder costs $168 delivered. You can also look for the turkeys locally — and without paying shipping — at Satchel Creek Steaks and GreenAcres Market, where the cost is about $6 a pound.
This year the ranch took 8,000 turkeys to market — down a bit from last year not because of the economy but because of some incubation problems, Williamson said. Except for this year, Good Shepherd has seen an increase in orders each of the years since it started selling them in 2002, he said. The ranch also sells heritage chickens, ducks and geese, and bratwurst, bacon, sausage, smoked and ground forms of the meat. Satchel Creek carries some of the products year-round. Geese and ducks will be available for sale after Dec. 1, and also sell out early, Williamson said.
"It's all really good," Patton said.
All of the birds are heritage, raised free-range in a pasture and fed a vegetarian diet with no added hormones and no antibiotics. The birds also breed naturally rather than being artificially inseminated. Williamson compares a non-heritage chicken raised commercially to an 8-year-old child who weighs 300 pounds.
Another way to get into the local-food loop for Thanksgiving is with hard white winter wheat from Norm Oeding, who farms Janzen Family Farms in Newton. Delano Bakery bakes his wheat into dinner rolls and breads available at Food for Thought. You can also buy the flour there, and "some people like to grind their own flour" and can do so by buying his wheat berries. They're available at Whole Foods stores and Food for Thought.
Phil Nisly plans to open his own processing plant by year's end, so expect more turkeys from him next year. For now, GreenAcres in Wichita and Prairie Harvest in Newton carry his turkeys, and sometimes chicken. You can also find him in the Extension Center parking lot at 21st and Ridge Road the first and third Saturdays of the month during the winter.