A cacophony of turkey voices floods the air late in the afternoon at 4-H leader Catherine Thode’s family farm in Sebastopol.
Here, more than 75 turkeys, resplendent in plumy coats of silver, charcoal, cocoa, and emerald, greet visitors with a throaty yelp—half song, half giggle. Wattles wobble and long necks crane in curiosity as they call in loud unison: Hello, yup! Hi, yup! Welcome, yup!
Their eager greeting is one of the many marvelous things about the birds, says ninth grader Ella Bartolomei. As members of Thode’s 4-H group, Ella and her brother Nico, a high school junior, have raised turkeys of their own for several years on their family’s rural property in Forestville.
“I like the way the turkeys sound,” Ella says, of the 49 American Bronze and Narragansett breed birds she and her brother have raised from chicks this year. “They not only say ‘gobble,’ but they respond when you say ‘gobble,’ too. It’s really entertaining to listen to them mock you all day.”
Nico, meanwhile, appreciates their magnificent style. “They’re prehistoric looking, like little dinosaurs,” he says. The Bronze turkeys he raises have iridescent jade, copper, and ebony feathers and flashes of patriotic red, white, and blue across their necks and snoods (the snood is the fleshy bit that dangles over the beak of male turkeys). “They’re cool animals, and it’s fun to watch them strut around. I especially enjoy when the toms flaunt their tail feathers and change their face colors to impress the ladies.”
Ultimately, the majority of the birds raised by these local students end up as Thanksgiving birds, part of a program to increase the number of heirloom-certified turkeys available locally and provide alternatives to grocery store standard Broad Breasted White turkeys. A few of the birds raised by the students may become part of breeding programs in an effort to propagate and preserve rare, heirloom breeds of turkey. The program requires a lot of work for 4-H and FFA members, yet embracing the boutique birds is a beloved mission for them all—a way to celebrate tradition and history.
Catherine Thode has been the lead coordinator for the heirloom turkey project for nearly two decades, working with Slow Food Russian River. It can be an expensive undertaking, she acknowledges, as the heirloom-certified turkeys dine on organic feed specially formulated to standards from the Livestock Conservancy, a national group that advocates for heritage livestock and poultry breeds. Each bird is a special bird, banded on an inner wing, so a purchaser is guaranteed where it came from.
The students pay for (or hatch their own) turkey poults and are responsible for feed and supplies. In turn, the sale proceeds go to the young farmer who raised the birds. This year, due in part to a more than 13% increase in the cost of the locally milled organic grains, the 4-H heritage turkeys are priced at $12 a pound.
Sebastopol siblings Hannah and Nolan Perry started raising turkeys with Thode’s 4-H group after stepping up from chickens. The siblings are now experienced turkey farmers, bringing six Bronze and four Bourbon Red birds to market for 2023. “Being responsible for the well-being of animals means you have to prioritize them, and check on their food, water, health, and safety, even when it doesn’t fit into your schedule,” says Hannah. She also loved learning how her turkeys can have such individual personalities Nico Bartolomei is proud that his diligence has paid off. “When I started doing the project, I lost many birds to predators,” he says.
“I kept modifying their run, and trying heavier
duty netting on top of their outdoor space until we finally had a year without losses.
It taught me that the best things take time to do. I also now know just how much time, resources, and commitment it takes for one animal to go from an egg to someone’s plate.”
As the turkeys grow, the 4-H kids find themselves forming opinions about the world they want to live in. Ella Bartolomei has discovered that “growing food humanely and organically” is very important to her. Nolan Perry has grown to appreciate where his food comes from, but he also says picking up the day-old poults from the Thode farm and watching them grow is simply a lot of fun. “When they’re older, they’re so fun to be around,” he says.
“Their gobbling is like a laugh track.”
The taste of a heritage turkey
Heritage breeds bring more natural flavor, with rich, robust dark meat, says heritage foods advocate Michael Dimock, who founded Slow Food Russian River and, more recently, Roots of Change, which focuses on regenerative agriculture and making healthy food accessible to everyone. Dimock has purchased a Sonoma County heritage turkey every year since the project’s launch and finds the students’ birds superior to other breeds of turkey.
Heirloom turkeys are raised outdoors, which leads to more defined muscle texture and leaner, more flavorful meat. “They cook much faster, so they’re juicy, and have so much more flavor that they don’t need anything else,” he said. “I just stuff them really full with herbs like rosemary and sage, and a bunch of different fruits like apples, oranges, and pears. They taste like joy.”
Turkey to the table
To reserve a heritage turkey from one of Catherine Thode’s 4-H students, it’s best to plan up to a year ahead, as the students have capacity to raise just a few hundred birds each season. For more information on the Sonoma heritage turkey project, visit heritageturkeyproject.com.
If the 4-H birds are spoken for, you can still support thoughtful, small-scale agriculture with a boutique Broad Breasted bird, raised on a healthier diet and with humane values like room to roam. Here are more sustainable picks for your Sonoma holiday table.
Diestel Family Ranch
The Tuolumne County farm raises turkeys on a vegetarian diet without hormones, antibiotics, or growth stimulants. Order to pick up at Oliver’s Markets, Whole Foods, and Fircrest Market. diestelturkey.com
Shelton’s Natural Foods Market
Select from free-range, organic, and heritage turkeys raised by Mary’s Free Range Turkey in Fresno County. Order ahead to pick up at 428 Center St., Healdsburg, 707431-0530, sheltonsmarket.com.
Sonoma County Meat Co.
During the holiday season, you can find Diestel turkeys at this shop that deals exclusively in all-natural, California-raised, sustainable meats. 35 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa. 707-521-0121, sonomacountymeatco.com
Tara Firma Farms
A limited number of sustainably-raised turkeys are offered by this regenerative, family-run farm. 3796 I St., Petaluma. 707-765-1202, tarafirmafarms.com/csa
Victorian Farmstead Meat Co.
Free-range, hormone-free birds from local farms. Order to pick up at Sebastopol Community Market Butcher Shop, 6762 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. 707-332-4605, vicfarmmeats.com