For 2023, the Bell family of Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds, Maine, made a pivot with their turkey production. Rather than raising two batches of 1,000 Broad Breasted Whites and processing for the fresh Thanksgiving market, they decided to raise just one batch during the prime of pasture season. They slaughtered the turkeys in late summer, and as of mid-October, 22 pallets of frozen turkeys were sitting in rented freezer space waiting for Thanksgiving sales.
Tide Mill Organic Farm LLC is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Aaron Bell and Carly Delsignore. Aaron’s parents also farm full-time, as well as Paige, one of Aaron and Carly’s four children. The other three kids help out around their other commitments.
Aaron is a member of the ninth generation of Bells to farm this coastal property in Downeast Maine.
The farm is a whirlwind of certified organic livestock production: they process about 1,000 broilers a week in their USDA on-farm processing facility; they raise pork; and they bottle milk from their herd of 25 cows. The products, all of which are certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, are direct marketed to wholesale accounts throughout the state. They also recently began shipping frozen meat boxes packed with dry ice that can be ordered from their website.
Aaron said, “We downsized our turkey operation for our own sanity. It was too much. We’re doing less wholesale accounts, and we’re trying to do more retail through our mail order website.”
They purchased the turkeys in early July at six weeks old – an age that allowed them to be put directly on pasture. About three years ago, Aaron ditched portable electric poultry netting and installed a non-electric permanent six-foot woven wire fence around three acres. According to him, the poultry netting was time consuming to move and entanglement issues were not uncommon with the turkeys.
The three-acre permanent pasture is a mixture of woods, some marginal fields and highly productive pasture. Aaron said that “pre-turkeys” and “post-turkeys,” it’s part of the rotational grazing systems for the dairy herd.
To keep the turkeys moving across the pasture, they regularly move the 10 waterers, made from the tops and bottoms of 50-gallon plastic barrels. Each waterer is equipped with a float valve and filled via the PVC pipe that is part of the pasture water system. The dozen grain feeders, which have a capacity of up to 300 lbs., are also moved regularly.
Organic grain – a 21% protein blend grown in Aroostook County, Maine – is hauled into the paddock with a skid steer bucket loaded with five-gallon buckets of grain.
There is a shaded greenhouse at one end of the pasture, but the turkeys only needed to be sheltered a few times in 2023. Aaron noted that the turkeys were “all the time pecking around” and that this foraging reduced the amount of grain that needed to be fed.
While the turkeys were raised in one batch, they were deliberate about the processing schedule in order to achieve an optimum range of sizes. Aaron said, “We processed turkeys every week for probably a month and a half. We were really picking and choosing our sizes. We would go in there and weigh them to get an idea of what they would weigh.”
In 2023, they lost a few turkeys to aerial predation, but the six-foot woven wire fence prevented foxes or raccoons from entering the paddock.
Although they are constantly on the lookout for avian flu, it has not been an issue in their location. Blackhead disease (histomoniasis) is another affliction of concern, but again, Tide Mill has not been impacted. The disease is caused by single-celled protozoa that spread to the bird via roundworms.
On processing days, the turkeys were herded or moved in a livestock trailer to their 40-by-60-foot USDA processing facility. Then, they were moved into an attached holding room which can hold about 80 turkeys. After slaughter and gutting, they were placed two at a time into a Poultry Man scalder and then run through an Ashley Sure-Scald plucker. This is the same equipment they use for their broilers, except six broilers can be scalded and plucked at a time. Tide Mill also uses this equipment to custom process poultry for other commercial growers and hobby farmers.
From the plucker, the birds were bagged and labeled. Each one was then placed in a plastic crate and allowed to freeze. “Anything freezes quicker the more air that can get to it. So instead of putting them in a cardboard box and trying to freeze them, which is just going to slow the process down, we always freeze our poultry in breathable, stackable containers,” Aaron said.
About half of 2023’s turkeys will be wholesaled to a market and bakery with seven locations in southern Maine. The remainder are available for purchase directly from Tide Mill’s website or picked up at the farm.
Twenty-one-year-old Paige oversees the online sales. Aaron is proud to say that Paige lovingly fed, raised and processed the turkeys. She is also the person who packs and ships each frozen Thanksgiving turkey (and other meats during the rest of the year), who answers the emails and who can accommodate special requests.
“There’s an authenticity there that I think the customer doesn’t realize, whether it be going to the grocery store or ordering from any website,” Aaron said. “They don’t realize how many links in the chain there are between the farm and how they get the food. So directly from the farmer, that’s a special thing.”
While some customers may be disappointed that they can no longer obtain a fresh turkey, the Bell family is happy with the shift to fewer and frozen turkeys. Gone is the wildly hectic pre-Thanksgiving week and gone is the stress of trying to make sure every customer gets the exact size turkey they want. Gone are the days of worrying about November storms and their potential impact on the turkeys.
And since they are only raising turkeys in summer, they are glad to stop deliberating infrastructure improvements to make raising turkeys in late autumn easier.
“We’re focused on being a little more direct and connected with the consumer. It’s what we’re gambling on for our survival and continuing to farm, hopefully, for several more generations,” Aaron said.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin