Turkeys are often the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal. But how they are raised and where they come from differs depending on where a person gets the bird.
Ben Grimes, owner of Dawnbreaker Farms in North Carolina, has been running his farm with pasture-raised chickens, ducks and turkeys since 2014.
”This is a very different model from the typical commercial production model which is going to be indoors, climate-controlled,” he explained.
This environment is not what many think of when they envision large-scale poultry operations.
“We’re using our animals not just for economic gain, but for the environmental benefit they can have on a piece of land,” Grimes said. “More sustainable, I’d even say the word being tossed around a lot is regenerative.”
There’s a lot that goes into raising turkeys.
“The U.S. turkey industry in 2020 produced about 214 million turkeys and Americans consumed right around 16 pounds of turkey per person,” said Beth Breeding, spokesperson with the National Turkey Federation. “Turkey production has changed over the years. We are able to use a lot of technology in what we're doing now on the farm and that certainly helps with the impact of production.”
Regardless, the same inputs are needed for turkey farms of any kind.
“Not a lot of labor goes into each turkey but there's a lot of corn and soybeans that go into each turkey,” Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California Davis, said.
“Our marketplace wants to be eating poultry, pork and beef. You can't have pork and poultry without grain inputs. There is not a good alternative substitute for anything at scale,” Grimes said.
He said grains are a necessary evil in this industry.
“While their impact directly on my land is highly beneficial, it does require the production of grain on someone else's land and the deterioration of the quality of that land to produce the regeneration on this land,” Grimes said.
There is an alternative solution being looked at -- cultivated meat.
“All of the technology is there. All of the technical know-how is there. It’s just in terms of applying it to producing protein,” Paul Mozdziak, a professor at NC State University, said. He is a cellular agriculture expert.
“What this could look like is instead of having your local farmer you'll have your local in vitro meat producer," Mozdziak said.
“They may be talking about trying to grow turkey meat in a lab but nobody is talking about growing the whole turkey….we’ll all be watching carefully 50, 60 years from now,” Sumner said.
“It does answer some of our questions in terms of animal welfare and some of the environmental problems we have in our food system,” Grimes said.
But Grimes said that could move the industry in an unnatural direction with more highly-processed foods.
“I truly believe raising animals in a way that mimics natural systems is the best way,” he said.
While the cost for one of his turkeys may be more, people are getting what they pay for.
“It’s going to be 10, 15 times more expensive,” Grimes explained. “You're paying for a happy turkey and the environmental regeneration of our food system.”
Farmers are gearing up for the busiest time of year for turkey sales.
“What I would say to folks that are really interested in the environmental consequences of their meals -- one thing to do is make sure you eat it all,” Sumner said. Because the resources already went into making it, whether you eat it or not.
“I don’t think that I have the perfect system but I do believe that what I'm doing can be a bridge to the future,” Grimes said.