Talking turkey tomorrow? Many of us will have a lazy day tomorrow, watching football, avoiding awkward conversations with some of the relatives and of course eating turkey: 46 million or so, according to the National Turkey Federation (yes, such an organization exists).
While Thanksgiving is a special day for Americans, obviously turkeys have a different opinion, especially the ones that met a violent end of life at a Butterball processing facility last year. Tales such as the one at Butterball reveal the ugly side of the poultry processing industry, which is subjected to thin profit margins and consumers who feel entitled to cheap food.
Then, there is the other extreme. Last year, the extended family purchased a turkey from an esteemed butcher who contracted with a very special farm. Special all right: the turkey cost $150. The birds ate wildflowers and hazel nuts, drank filtered water . . . and at that price should have had their coops LEED-certified and received a hug from Oprah. So, clearly those turkeys had it made before they met their demise; but that price is out of reach for many families.
One company in California’s San Joaquin Valley has struck a happy medium. Once a contract farm for larger turkey processors, Mary’s Turkeys transformed the way in which the company raised its turkeys (and chickens). The result is a resurgent business for a family that has raised turkeys for almost 60 years, a contract with Whole Foods and even a nod from PETA.
The Pitman Family has raised turkeys since 1954. Rick Pitman learned about the family business from his father, Don; Rick’s wife, Mary, is the woman behind the company’s name. Rick and Mary’s son, David, started to help out when the family business hit hard times in the late 1990s. After raising only turkeys for decades, David suggested adding chickens to the business, and in 2003, the Pitmans opened their own processing center in Sanger, outside of Fresno. The company’s turkeys are all raised within 60 miles of the plant.
According to the Pitman family, Mary’s Turkeys roam around the family’s six ranches with an average of four times the average space birds have on other commercial farms. The turkeys have an all-vegetarian meal and are spared hormones and antibiotics. Mary became interested in the effects that foods containing sugars, preservatives and additives had on the body; her keen interest in nutrition help shift the family’s business approach and is why the family business carries her name.
Eventually, the company hopes to find a more humane way to slaughter the turkeys. Chickens at the Pitman’s processing plant are gassed in a process called “controlled atmosphere stunning” and put to sleep before their throats are slit and their processing for supermarkets and restaurants begins. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Pitman family does not have a set up appropriate for turkeys, but their goal is to eventually set one up for those larger birds. Only one other company, Bell & Evans of Pennsylvania, uses such a system. The process may sound creepy at first: the birds are stacked into drawers and then CO2 slowly seeps in, making the birds drowsy and within six or so minutes, they fall asleep. The alternative, however, is the heinous water bath stunning technique that paralyze them while they hang upside down. If you are going to end up as part of Thanksgiving banquet, chances are you would rather be asleep so you do not experience what goes on in a meat processing plant.
Some would argue that a Thanksgiving with turkey can never be guilt-free. But businesses such as Mary’s Turkeys show that using humane ways to raise and, yes, kill animals is both a step forward for animal welfare–and for business. Mary’s Chickens have been sold in Whole Foods since 2005, the Pitman’s turkey business is a huge success, has a national following and the continues to grow at an impressive rate.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.
Image credit: Mary’s Turkeys