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Beyond Your Control

There are some things you can control, like the heater in your car, and other things you can’t, like how many Turkeys you manage to raise successfully despite predators, finicky weather, and random disappearances. As a farmer, you have to learn this lesson early on. There are just too many factors that are beyond your influence.

We were feeling great about our crop of turkeys this year. We felt great when we only lost a handful of chicks in the brooder. We felt even better when we managed to count 380 birds the day we moved them out to the pasture. We were ecstatic when, after a few weeks, we had only lost three or four of our fowl to hawks and they were quickly growing to the size that would make them an unlikely meal for most predators. We estimated that we’d have at least 350 by the time thanksgiving shoppers showed up. With that number in mind, we started selling birds. Of course, 350 was supposed to be a conservative guess. If we only promised 350 birds, that would leave room for transport and processing damage and any other slight problems that might arise.

The other evening Walker got a call. It was Amanda from the Foothills Processing Plant informing us that the numbers were in…324 birds, not counting those damaged during transportation. That is the kind of phone call you don’t dread. Not only because it meant dozens of customers would be left out to dry, but it also meant that, somewhere along the line, we’d made some big errors in judgment that couldn’t be undone.

As we piled boxes of birds into the cooler this morning, Amy said something that made me really appreciate this job, even in the midst of a minor crisis. She handed me one of the 60 pound boxes and said, “It just makes me feel so bad to disappoint customers. I mean I know it’s not our fault exactly, but I can’t help but think if we had worked a little harder at a few details, we wouldn’t be letting all these people down.”

It wasn’t as though Amy was worried about the extra work this debacle cost us or the credibility of the business. She wasn’t even most concerned about loss of profit. She was thinking about the customers who were so looking forward to a Hickory Nut Gap, pasture raised turkey for their Thanksgiving who wouldn’t be able get one. I know that lots of businesses tout customer service as a core concept in their mission statements, but it meant so much to me to hear so directly that our goal is to give customers the very best product we can muster– to give this farming thing our best shot– our very best. Whatever the weather, whatever surprises come up, this bunch of farmers is going to put in the effort because there is value in a job well done.

Sweetbread

Turkey Jargon

As an aspiring farmer, educator, and writer, I thought it might be a nice component of this blog to include a vocabulary section. This is as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s. There are just so many interesting words involved with farming that most people will never have the pleasure of learning. I love the feel of some words, the taste as they leap from the tongue. Some match their subject, while others are confusing in their possession of some characteristic completely opposed to the thing they describe. Every vocation and hobby has its own jargon; a vocabulary that is specific to the needs and desires of those individuals who deal with a certain set of problems and tools on a regular basis. Farming may encompass several sets of terminology because farmers deal with such a wide range of daily tasks nevertheless, there are certain words that I’ve come across during my work here at Hickory Nut Gap that are just too good to keep hidden within the farming community.

Here are my words for today: Caruncle, Wattle, and Snood. These words sound like they came from a Dr. Suess book but they are real terms for the anatomical aspects of turkeys! The snood is the protuberance that hangs from over the male turkey’s beak. This fleshy finger is supposed to have a function in attracting females. The wattle, or dewlap, is the red flap that hangs under the beak. It also is an ornament which the toms (male turkeys) use to attract the hens. Caruncle simply refers to all the fleshy bits that hang from a turkey’s head and neck, including the snood and wattle.

Turkeys that are competing for a mate will often defer to the Tom with the longest snood.

I find these words perfectly suited to the curiously endearing birds that we raise once a year. The turkeys are vastly superior to their fowl (foul) counterparts, the chickens. They are intelligent, they are great foragers and every time we move their pen they rush into the new grass to delve for bugs, berries and seeds. They make strange clicking and barking noises that morph into full blown gobbling as they mature (actually only the males gobble). Every time we drive up with feed, they rush to the fence barking excitedly, and mill around as we empty the feed into troughs. They are not so interested in the grain as they are in us and the noise we make driving up. Walker, Zach, and I have contemplated the idea that maybe the reaction is a form of protection. If any predator approached the pen only to find 380 barking turkeys advancing on them, it might just make them forget their hunger. In fact, one day a few weeks ago, someone forgot to turn on the electric fence that encompasses our turkey house. When one of the fall interns, showed up with the feed, the turkeys were so excited that they rushed her and, finding no significant deterrent, knocked down the fence and chased the poor girl back down the hill! They’re not even fully mature birds yet.

Young turkeys attacking the comfrey that grows in the orchard.

Here’s to wattles and snoods,

Sweetbread