A Thanksgiving for the birds For the Birds

Image 1. Bird to you mother: “When an animal is eating living food, there’s something in it you can’t put in a bag,” says Galen Menzel.
Image 2. Of a feather: Turkeys are just really fun to raise,” says Menzel. “They’re really curious and will interact with you.”

Local and pasture-raised, of course

Galen Menzel and Carmen Lescher’s farm has gone to the birds — 200 turkeys to be exact, in addition to the laying hens and broiler (meat) chickens that can be found at Which Came First Farm year-round.

“Turkeys are just really fun to raise,” says Menzel. “They’re really curious and will interact with you; they have a much more interesting personality than chickens generally.”

This is the second year Menzel and Lescher will raise turkeys for Thanksgiving. Impressively, it’s also only Which Came First Farm’s second year in operation.

“I was a computer programmer and had become disenchanted with the lifestyle for a lot of different reasons,” Menzel says. So he did something to change it. Specifically, he trained at well-known Polyface Farms in Virginia under Joel Salatin (Salatin and his farm are featured in Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking food study The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc.). “I didn’t know necessarily that it would be something I would like to do, but it seemed like it would address some of the issues I had with my programming position,” he shares, namely sitting down all day with little connection to the outside world.

It did. Menzel continued in agriculture, next interning at Earthaven Ecovillage outside of Asheville, where Lescher was getting her first introduction to small-scale farming. “I’d been wanting to homestead since I can remember; I wanted to create a more sustainable life for myself, ” Lescher says. “Then I met Galen, and the idea of starting a small poultry farm that could lead to us having a homestead and supporting ourselves from a land-based income stream was really exciting.”

The duo set off to make farming their careers, and after considering Washington, California and Texas, they decided to stay here. “The climate is wonderful, and there is a lot of support for small farmers from ASAP and other organizations,” Lescher notes.

Of course, they also set out to implement the Polyface model. “The model means that everything we do is pasture-raised and rotationally raised; our animals are outside on pasture and moved frequently,” Menzel says, adding, “That has the double benefit of allowing our birds [turkeys and chickens] fresh grass and bugs to eat constantly and of spreading the manure and the impact of the animals out on the pasture.”

The approach also has the benefit of improved taste, according to Menzel. “When an animal is eating living food, there’s something in it you can’t put in a bag. That’s going to lead not only to a healthier bird, but a better-tasting bird.”

Turkey timeline

But there’s more that goes into getting their turkeys to your Thanksgiving table than letting them forage for the good stuff. Like what, you ask? We were hoping you would.

First week of August: The turkey poults (very young turkeys) arrive at Which Came First Farm. “We raise them in a brooder (think an incubator) with our broilers. The chicken chicks help the turkey poults find food and water. Turkey poults can die easily because they have difficulty finding food, but with the chickens around to help them, we’ve found the survival rate is much higher,” Menzel explains.

Late-August/early-September: After about three weeks in the brooder, they move into a passive solar-heated greenhouse until they’re large enough to stay put and not slip through the electric netting the couple uses in their pasture.

Mid-September through early-November: The six-month-old turkeys head out to pasture. But they don’t stay put. “Every three days we give them a new paddock,” says Menzel, adhering to the Polyface rotational model. In the pasture, they can eat grass and bugs, as well as normal feed and turkey grit for a balanced diet (common grit sources include pulverized granite, limestone or oyster shells). According to Menzel, their turkeys eat upward of 30 pounds of crushed pea-gravel grit a day.

Just before Thanksgiving: Once the turkeys are about 16 weeks old, they “take a trip,” as they say, to the processing plant in Marion. The turkeys will be offered fresh and available for pickup on Tuesday, Nov. 20. at the French Broad Food Co-op. Menzel and Lescher plan for the turkeys to be in the 12-22 pound range, but they can’t guarantee a specific size. A $25 deposit is required to reserve a bird, and turkeys are $4.50 a pound. You can request a small, medium or large bird, and they will do the best to accommodate you.

While the couple has a soft spot in their hearts for raising birds — and will do so indefinitely, they say — they do plan to count cattle and pigs among their farm residents at some point in the next few years. For now, once Thanksgiving has passed, they’ll focus on moving the operation closer to Asheville, from Lake Lure to Old Fort.

At press time, Which Came First still had turkeys available for purchase. To reach the farm, call 625-3402 or email whichcamefirstfarm@gmail.com. Find the farm’s products on the menu of Table in downtown Asheville as well as for purchase at the French Broad Food Co-op and its Wednesday Tailgate Market (ends Nov. 21).

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