WALLA WALLA — Americans enjoy turkey, so much so that we eat about 16 pounds of it each year, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Over at Barkwell Family Farm in Milton-Freewater, the turkeys are appreciated more for their brains, rather than their breasts, thighs or drumsticks.
“They have a good personality so you are going to have trouble butchering them,” Steve Barkwell warns any would-be turkey growers.
Being large omnivores with little self defense, turkeys are keen observers of their environment, which might be the reason why the turkeys at the Barkwells farm seem to enjoy being around humans.
Pavo, a 5-year-old heritage turkey, is the tom of the farm and weighs about 35 pounds. The female, a bit smaller, doesn’t have name yet.
Together, when the two were a bit younger and a lot lighter, they would occasionally fly their coop.
“What they wanted to do when they got out was just find me. I got five acres here and they would just travel around and they would find me and just hang out,” Barkwell said, noting that the chicken and other fowl never did that. But turkeys do have voracious appetites, and Pavo and his hen might have been seeking out Barkwell to get more food.
Barkwell said he has already had to put his turkeys on diets or else they will get too big.
So how big can a turkey get?
According to 4-H Fowl and Rabbit Superintendent Pam Castoldi, too big for her oven.
A couple weeks ago her largest tom was pushing 50 pounds. So it was time to sell off and butcher her small flock.
“If I would have kept mine for another month we would have had a 35 to 40 pound turkey (fully processed weight),” Castoldi said.
According to the Federation, it takes about 80 pounds of feed and 18 weeks of growing for a tom or male turkey to reach a market weight or live weight of 33 pounds.
The hens take 15 weeks and get to about 15 pounds.
Castoldi said her turkeys probably ate more than the industry average, and the result was that she ended up with a 31-pounder in her freezer this year.
Contrary to popular belief, Castoldi said, most people who raise turkeys for meat don’t eat freshly killed birds on Thanksgiving day.
“Do you want to be out there killing your turkey before Thanksgiving? Probably not,” Castoldi said.
It turns out that butchering is often the biggest obstacle for keeping turkeys for meat.
Just like chickens, turkey butchering involves bleeding, scalding, plucking, removing pin feathers, cleaning innards and cleaning up the mess afterward. The main difference between the two is that a turkey can get 10 times larger.
“If you are going to eat them, you better have a plan because they are not easy to process,” Castoldi said.
On an industrial level, officials say 248 million turkeys were processed last year in the U.S.
Minnesota is the top producing state with 46.2 million turkeys raised last year.
As for the trimmings, Minnesota’s neighbor, Wisconsin, produced the most cranberries at 430 million pounds last year.
Mashed potatoes went to our neighbors to the east, Idaho, with 12.7 billion pounds of potatoes grown last year.
Washington took a strong second with 9.8 billion pounds and led the nation with the highest yield per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the Castoldis, they started venture with a paltry six poults bought on Mothers Day.
Once mature in the fall, two were sold off, two were given to a friend to butcher — with the payment being the friend got to keep one of the birds — and for the first time, the Castoldis decided to keep two turkeys as pets.
“They are fun. And they have such personality. Usually people are afraid of them because they are so big and look so fierce, but they are not. And it’s fun to hear them gobble,” Castoldi said.
But which two to keep?
The answer came only short while after getting the new poults, when one of the Castoldi’s cats took one, ran off with it and refused to let it out of its mouth.
Eventually the cat was forced to release the poult; by then the Castoldis were certain the bird would die. It wasn’t so.
“That’s why I kept Survivor as the one hen because she has a history … And then I kept the prettiest one that we liked of the toms,” Castoldi said.