My agricultural background rests firmly in the equine area. However, with the impending Thanksgiving holiday and the looming threat of bird flu I was pressed into service to find a turkey breeder willing to allow a stranger onto their farm to take a picture of a turkey for a cover.
I learned very quickly that in the face of not only the avian flu outbreak but also the possibility of animal rights activists, the breeders of turkeys, whose main crop after all will be greatly in demand at this time, are not welcoming of strangers. I can’t say that I blame them, come to think of it. I know that if I had a crop of fancy sales yearlings headed for a major horse sale I would be cautious too. But it did mean that I couldn’t just hit the Internet, call a few of the listed turkey farms and expect a welcome mat to be laid out at the end of the farm driveway.
By the weekend before my deadline I was getting pretty desperate. I was calling friends of friends and local farm museums that advertise petting zoos and asking if they had turkeys. What I learned about farm museums is that all of their turkeys (as well as the rest of their livestock) goes “home” as fall settles firmly into winter. This was a new idea to me and it sounds like a pretty cushy way to farm. When the weather gets tough, send out your livestock to someone else to care for. What a way to farm!
Nevertheless I persevered. With two days to go I found two people who raise small flocks of heritage birds on their farms and they were willing to let me come to take pictures. I arrived at the first farm with three printouts of ‘a good turkey pose’ pictures from my editor. The important thing, I had been told, is that there must be a human in the picture with the turkeys.
The farmer took one look at the first picture of a man with a turkey in his arms.
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” she said decisively.
She looked at the second one of a man standing near his turkeys. “Nope. That’s not going to happen either!” she said again.
I showed her the last picture of a man standing in a sort of grassy paddock with his turkeys in the same general area. “Hmmm. Maybe. If you get really lucky,” she said.
What I learned shortly after that is turkeys seem, by nature, contrary. Then I learned that they are much, much faster than you might think. In fact, given the cost of racing horses it could be a great deal wiser for folks to raise racing turkeys than to try to racehorses. At least then you could eat the losers without an outcry from the public opinion people.
In fact at that farm those turkeys, all of them Bourbon Reds led by a lone Guinea hen, were so fast that the nearest person was something like 200 feet behind them. To be fair, he was not at top speed for fear of sending them flying over the fence into the waiting jaws of the three farm dogs. While we waited for the birds to round the far corner of the field and gallop past again, it was explained to me that Bourbon Red turkeys are named for Bourbon County in Kentucky, where J. F. Barbee developed them in the late 1800s. It seemed entirely fitting, considering Kentucky’s penchant for fast horses, that their turkeys should also have a turn of speed befitting their birthplace.
After several rounds of the turkey paddock it was mutually agreed that the turkeys and humans would not be in the same space at the same time — at least until Thanksgiving.
I went on to the next farm, hoping that Standard Bronze turkeys would be, if not friendlier, at least a lot slower. As it turned out I was right. The second farmer looked at the photographs and said that he could certainly hold a turkey right there on the lawn anywhere I wanted. And he did. He and the turkey moved from here to there, posed for close ups and a few more distant shots as well.
The turkey didn’t seem at all impressed but I was ecstatic. As we said our goodbyes with the turkey still clasped in the farmer’s arms I was almost sad to think of that turkey’s imminent future. Almost. But not quite. I love Thanksgiving, don’t you?