You can guard against coccidiosis, a disease caused by parasites almost universally present in soil, through good hygiene. Clean watering devices daily and maintain dry bedding inside the shelter. Medicated turkey feed includes an antibiotic that targets the common bug, though organic standards do not permit it. Organic farmers may, however, employ
a coccidiosis vaccine, typically administered to poults.
Come late fall, it’s time to orchestrate a peaceful end. And precisely how small-scale farmers handle this depends largely on location. In some municipalities and most rural counties, farmers can legally process turkeys on-site for home consumption. If you plan to sell the meat, you’ll likely need to locate a state- or USDA-inspected poultry-processing facility. (For help finding a local slaughterhouse or making sense of your area’s rules, go to nichemeatprocessing.org.)
In Connecticut, Lesnik can process her turkeys on-site, without USDA inspection, if her customers buy a live bird by plunking down a deposit the previous spring. “Some years, I barely break even,” she admits, though her turkeys play an important role in the farm’s ecosystem, nabbing fallen fruit, eating insects, and scratching the soil.
She maintains that a huge part of the challenge is consumer education. “You have to teach people that the heritage bird they’re getting is not the Butterball they’re used to,” Lesnik explains. “The physical contour is different. They’ve got these huge, muscular legs, because they’ve been running around.” And, of course, there’s a lot less white breast meat, compared with the grocery-store competition.
Regardless, she prefers to focus on heritage breeds. “Initially, we tried raising Broad-Breasted Whites, but I found them to be painfully dumb. They died every which way – they’d get stuck in branches and accidentally hang themselves. Heritage turkeys are challenging in their own right. They’re high-maintenance. But raising them is much more rewarding.”