Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Talking turkey about the cost of eating organic

The elephant in my kitchen all summer has been a turkey.

This year for Thanksgiving, I decided to reserve a live turkey from a local farmer who sells produce at the farmer’s market across the street from my house.

On the market’s opening day in June, I sought him out and signed up for my bird.

Only then he tells me how big the birds were last year – and how much they cost per pound.

Last year, his family cooked and ate a 48-pound turkey. That’s dressed weight, meaning the turkey had been stripped of feathers and other inedible parts.

And his price, derived from the cost of organic feed, was $2.75 per pound. That would be $132 for my Thanksgiving turkey.

He called to another shopper, Loretta Wotring, to tell me her story. She bought a 38-pound turkey. It barely fit in her roaster pan. And she had just served her family the last of the frozen leftovers that spring.

I started to sweat.

As the weeks slipped by till Thanksgiving, I tried to save money and I occasionally worried how I was going to pay for the bird. I decided if it was huge, I’d just cut it in half and freeze half of it raw – presentation be damned!

I sheepishly told my husband we might have to pay as much for the turkey as I would’ve previously spent on the whole meal, frozen store-bought turkey included.

My curiosity got the better of me in October and I called the farmer, James Stemple.

He said this year the price per pound would be the same but he was sure the birds would be smaller – in the 12- to 18-pound range because he got the day-old chicks in July this year. Last year he had hatchlings in May so they had more time to grow and get larger.

I wanted the local turkey for the experience. I’ve never roasted a fresh turkey, only frozen. My experience tasting locally raised animals is limited to pork and beef.

I am apathetic about food politics.

I think it’s important to support your neighbors if you can, but I don’t buy all my food from local sources. I understand how it pollutes the earth the farther your food travels and that it puts big business over the small farmer. It’s admirable to be a locavore, but I am lazy. I am also concerned about additives, hormones and injections that are given commercially raised animals. But I’d rather not think about it. Price is the biggest influence on my purchasing.

I spent no more than $150 on the Thanksgiving dinner I’m serving to eight people this year. That is easily half my monthly food budget. The turkey’s price was $38 of that. I could’ve had a turkey for 39 cents a pound from Kroger with a $25 purchase. And I have had several local women laugh at me (actually laugh out loud) and tell me I was crazy for spending so much. I do not begrudge James Stemple the money at all. Even having not yet tasted the bird, I’d buy from him again if I could save the money. I have the highest respect for farmers. He and his father, Darwin, graciously showed me around their farm and talked turkey with me. They are very kind and hardworking.

It’s just that I am too poor to have a food conscience.

I cannot buy organic and sustainable and make a statement with my purchases year-round. I have long thought it a shame that fruits and vegetables cost more than processed foods; juice costs 2 to 3 times more than soda. Poor people are at the mercy of whatever is in the food they can afford.

This is a difficult post to write because I'm not comfortable sharing details about my personal financial situation. We aren’t hungry. We don’t go to food pantries. Maybe if I did I could meet every bill every month.

But I want to end this blog post on a happier note. So I will tell you about the Stemples’ farm.

The Stemples – James and his dad Darwin – farm on the sides of two steep hills in rural West Virginia. It is incredibly rocky on the hill where the Stemples have a house, barns and the livestock. It’s easier to break ground on the facing hillside where James grows the produce for his farmers’ market stand. He had just finished planting garlic when I visited in October. The driveway is a deeply rutted meandering cow path. You have to stop and open the gate, drive through, then close it behind you so no cows get out. They have a beautiful view of the surrounding tree-covered hills.

The farm has been in the family since 1941 or ’42. The Stemples moved to it in 1992. James had always wanted to keep birds. He sells eggs and the occasional chicken from his flock. And he has a personal flock of heritage turkeys that he occasionally harvests for a Sunday dinner. He buys white turkeys – the same that wind up inside the Butterball wrapper at the grocery store – to raise for sale at Thanksgiving. He doesn’t grow heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving because they take a long time to mature.

The turkeys are allowed to roam free-range. He feeds them a mix of corn and oats he buys from other local farmers and a feed blend he orders. He doesn’t inoculate his flock and he’s never had a problem. He is interested in sustainability, and he shyly grinned and said he wasn’t sure anyone would want to read about his flock. But he told me anyway. And I thank him. For his time and for his candor.

I thank him for raising the turkey my family will eat. And I thank him for selling it because I wouldn’t have found, or went to great lengths to seek out, the opportunity to serve a fresh, locally grown bird this year. Having the chance to buy local food that’s not been injected with something is only half the challenge of choosing organic. It also has to be affordable. And that is not Stemple’s problem to solve – he charges what he must to cover production costs and I think he deals fairly.

I want to reassure readers I am not indigent and I am having a happy Thanksgiving. I wish you the same.


Laura said...

I feel much the same way as you do regarding the local/organic food arena. I always buy cage free eggs and chicken when available because the thought of all of those chickens piled one on top of the other makes me sad. But when I do it, I don't look at the price because then I feel like I'm throwing money away.

Caroline said...

I love this! I'm thrilled you went to so much effort to seek out and purchase an organic turkey. I try to go organic when I can, but I'm in the same boat - it's so damn expensive! I'm posting this on my FB cause I think it's a great read and there are alot of people who are in agreement with you.

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