Is Bird Still the Word?
The North's biggest purveyor of pasture-raised turkeys takes on the strangest Thanksgiving yet.
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 14, 2020
At Thanksgiving, thoughts always turn to the big bird. Not the yellow one from Sesame Street but the bronze and buttered breast-side-up bird on a platter that’s the centerpiece of so many family gatherings each November.
This year, the pandemic has altered so much of what’s been considered normal. Large crowds are out, and at many Thanksgiving celebrations, the number of guests gathered for the traditional feast is likely to be downsized across the nation — transforming from multiple tables of friends and extended family to, well … maybe a quarantine co-pod, an immediate nuclear clan or couple, or even an intimate table (or couch) for one.
With less need for an easy-to-cook 12-pound entree that serves 24 eaters, does that mean the turkeys of Turkey Day 2020 have gone the way of the dodo?
At Duerksen Turkey Farm in Mancelona this summer, owners Rick and Sue Duerksen initially feared the answer would be yes.
“That was a concern of ours — would the wholesalers want smaller ones?” said Rick Duerksen.
The couple, who have owned the farm since 1979 — Rick grew up in the business, and he and Sue bought the farm together — raise several thousand birds each year.
Rest assured, raising several thousand turkeys is not a business with a quick turnaround. The orders for fresh turkeys are set a year in advance, and those birds are raised until just before Thanksgiving, when they're slaughtered right before the holiday; come autumn, there is no way to change the size of the birds roaming their pastures, readying for T-day.
And nope, bumping up the harvest date so the birds can't get any bigger isn't an option, said Rick: “We can’t harvest sooner, or we couldn’t sell them as fresh.”
Likely, the Duerkson's commitment to quality is what saved their turkey day.
Rather than cancel orders outright, buyers of Duerkson's birds simply stayed with the couple's freshly frozen birds, and those who required smaller portions simply opted for various cuts instead of a whole turkey. In fact, that was what a number of their wholesale accounts downstate specified, he said. “They wanted a lot of bone-in breasts, thighs, and legs.”
While the pandemic has had a crushing impact on many businesses, and a few others have seen an increase in business, for the Duerksens, strangely, it’s been pretty much business as usual. Rick Duerksen said sales spiked a bit in March and April before returning to more average levels.
One difference is a modern change to how the farm does business. In addition to selling their turkeys at farm markets throughout the region in summer and at various retailers downstate and throughout the region (Grain Train in Petoskey, Oryana in Traverse City, Martin’s Market in Charlevoix, and Willow Meats in Cadillac), the couple began offering their turkey for sale on their website, with delivery available within 50 miles of the farm.
“It’s the convenience of online shopping. People can stay home and shop,” said Sue Duerksen.
That's a long way from the Duerksen family's tradition, which goes back to the mid-40s. That’s when Rick’s maternal grandmother began raising turkeys, starting then with 100 birds — a far cry from Rick and Sue's thousands. But the couple has always evolved with the times.
Their business actually centered for a time on sales of fertilized turkey eggs. The Duerksons would artificially inseminate their hens and then sell the fertilized eggs to Janssen Farms Hatchery, in Zeeland, where the poults (young turkeys) were born before being sent to other facilities to grow and be processed.
But then Janssen Farms was sold to a German company and soon closed, leaving the Duerksens at a crossroads. “For three or four years, there were no turkeys. I did construction,” said Rick.
By 2007, the couple contemplated getting back into farming. They looked at which animals they could raise — goats, sheep, alpacas — before turning back to the animal they knew best. Rick ran the numbers and saw a growing demand for non-red meat, and soon they were back in the turkey business.
They capitalized on another trend, too. Seeing the increasing awareness of how much better meat tastes and how much healthier animals are for humans when those animals are allowed to roam and eat wild food rather than a singular diet of chicken feed, the couple fenced in 16 of the farm’s 44 acres for pasture-raised turkeys.
Rick noted the significant difference between pasture-raised and free-range: “Free-range means they have access to [the outdoors]. Pasture-raised means they go to the pasture and stay there,” depending on the weather. “On nice days, they go out. Right now [a raw, blustery day], they're inside. Every couple of weeks, we move them to a different pasture.”
To prime the pasture for pecking, the couple cleared trees and brush and seeded the acreage. To keep out predators — mostly foxes and coyotes — they used a series of fences and electrical lines. As for winged predators, they simply avoid them until the young turkeys can stave them off.
“We put them out at 10 weeks. Then they’re too big for predator birds."
“Studies show … a bird able to be out and run around is higher in Omega-3s,” he continued. Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of the membranes that surround each cell of the body. “Inside [a coop, chickens are] breathing ammonia. They also may peck at each other, so you can have a mortality problem.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, these modern farmers Duerksons also expanded the variety of turkey products they bring to market, meaning no matter how big (or small) your Thanksgiving Day dinner might be this year, you're covered.
“We’ve become aware of what’s out there," said Rick. And more importantly, they've responded: With turkey dogs, turkey jerky, turkey burgers — “It’s not scraps. It’s all breast and thigh," he noted proudly — turkey breakfast sausage, bone-in and boneless breasts, smoked sliced deli turkey, Canadian bacon, Italian turkey sausage, and bacon and cheddar brats, the Duerksons now offer 30 different turkey products.
With all that, who needs leftovers?
For Big Bird Adherents
Turkey Tips and Tricks
Sue Duerksen said her mantra for cooking a turkey is “low and slow.” For the first hour, she said she recommends a temperature of 375 to 400, then turning it down to 325.
“We like to use an electric roaster,” she said, noting that using one keeps the oven free for warming and/or cooking the side dishes.
(Before cooking, you want to prep the bird. “Rinse it, pat it dry, and smear it with butter. I put lemon and cranberries in the cavity for moisture and flavor,” said Sue.)
The length of time a bird cooks in the roaster or oven depends on the size, of course. But regardless of how big the bird or long the cooking, it's critical that you're certain the bird has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
“You can see when it’s done when the legs fall away from the bone. Take it out, tent it with foil and let it rest for 20 or 30 minutes,” she advised.
Not-your-usual turkey dinner ideas
In addition to an online shopping cart, the Duerkson Turkey Farm website (www.duerksonturkeyfarm.com) features several fun and different recipes, from Cajun Turkey Pasta to Thai Grilled Turkey Pizza to Turkey Stuffed Mushroom Caps. (Pressed for a favorite, Sue said her favorite is the Pulled Turkey On A Bun.)