What Thanksgiving Is Really Like for a Turkey Farmer and Her Family in South Carolina
Name: The Jones Family
Location: Doko Farm, Blythewood, South Carolina
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 4: Amanda, Joe, Phoebe (10), Ezra (6)
Avoidances: None. They prefer to eat locally, sustainably grown and in-season food.
When we were brainstorming big ideas for Thanksgiving this year, our team’s conversation turned to those who bring the big bird to our tables. What does “Turkey Day” look like for someone who actually raises turkeys for a living? Is it bittersweet? Clinical? Eerie? Joyful? There was only one way to find out: Ask a farmer.
We met the Jones family, who raise heritage turkeys — and much more! — on Doko Farm in Blythewood, South Carolina (a farm owned by Joe’s family since 1839). We talked about their free-roaming, garlic-chive-loving Narragansett turkeys, the inevitable “processing day,” and what ends up on the Jones’ family Thanksgiving table.
I have to ask first, how does your family celebrate Turkey Day — er, Thanksgiving?
We have only hosted Thanksgiving once in the last 10 years. Joe’s extended family has their traditions and preferences in place, and we try to roll with it. Our kids usually help make cranberry-apple-orange relish (from Feeding the Healthy Vegetarian Family by Ken Haedrich), and I prepare a super-fresh and locally grown vegetable, usually something green.
This year, though, our family member who usually hosts is unable to do so, and we were asked to host at the farmhouse. Luckily, I have a few extra whole heritage turkeys back on the farm, from our processor. I certainly did not have my reservation in on time! The first one is already brining, and will be served at our kids’ school as part of a school-wide community meal. The second one will be for the Thanksgiving gathering at our home.
Another one of our favorite traditions in November is Friendsgiving, when we gather for a drop-in, potluck-style meal at our friends’ home. For this meal I bake pies. I make a pecan mocha pie that everyone loves, my mom’s boozy mincemeat pie, or something completely different — like last year’s roasted beet and apple pie with horseradish cream. Two or more pies is a necessity, plus one stashed at home for us to enjoy later. This year, I plan on rendering leaf-fat from our Guinea hogs to make the pie crust. Leaf lard is prized by pastry chefs for its super-clean flavor and its ability to make flaky crusts and light pastries.
It’s only natural that you’ll be having Doko Farm turkeys!
We always enjoy one or two of our heritage turkeys each year, but not usually until around Christmas, so this Thanksgiving is a bonus. And then we’ll have another one later in winter at a gathering of friends at our farmhouse. If there is an extra heritage turkey in our freezer, I usually prepare it for a crew of farm volunteers at some point during the year. Our farm volunteers are the best!
Had you always planned to end up on a farm in South Carolina?
My husband Joe and I met at UC Santa Cruz and we had gotten very involved in the local organic food movement there. I was applying to go back to school for a sustainable agriculture program when Joe pointed out that his family owned farmland in South Carolina (and had since 1839). That hadn’t clicked with me when he asked me to marry him — I assumed we’d be living in California! It all ended up falling into place, though. Joe was able to get a teaching spot at his alma mater, The University of South Carolina, and his family deeded us the land for our farm. We moved back in autumn of 2007 and we started working on making our farmhouse livable — it hadn’t been lived in for 60 years. The original part had been built by his great-great grandfather in the mid-1800s. So that’s how we ended up here.
What’s a day in the life like on the farm?
Our days usually start by trying to rouse our kids and get them ready for school. I’ll hustle to get lunches packed and Joe makes us espresso (very essential!). I usually take the kids to school and Joe heads off to work. Joe is the faculty principal at USC’s Green Quad and teaches classes in environmental science, about the sustainability of food and marine science. (You can see that sustainability and the process of how food gets to the table are rarely far from our minds.) I take care of the morning farm chores such as making sure that all of our poultry, sheep, hogs, and livestock guardian dogs are fed, watered, and healthy (this happens at least twice a day). Then I work on another farm project such as repairing fencing, or getting ready to head to our local farmers market.
In the afternoons I pick up the kids from school and spend time reconnecting with them, getting snacks, and helping with homework. After Joe gets home in the evenings, he will typically tackle a last round of feeding and checking on livestock, so that I can focus on making dinner.
Wow, that’s a lot of mouths to feed! About how many animals do you have on Doko Farm?
Let’s see, I’m scanning the pasture counting animals [laughs]. We have Buckeye chickens, a flock of breeding chickens, another group of chickens that we keep for eggs, and another group of them that we’re growing out for meat birds. We have 15 Naragansett turkeys for breeding and a group of approximately 40 that will be processed for the holidays. (Some years, someone will hide on processing day, though, and they’ll get to stay behind!)
We also raise goats, hogs, sheep, dogs, and cats. We do a ton more than poultry. As farms go, we’re a micro farm, but it’s more than you can fit in a typical backyard.
Do your animals have names?
Not all, but some. We have three goats with names: Carmen, Strawberry Shortcake, and Foxrun. Two of our hogs, Thelma and Louise, like to go on adventures together. And Bacon Bits was a bottle-fed pig that never quite outgrew his runt status. We’ve also had breeding turkeys named Chowder and Stewy. Then we gave up on the naming. But if you have a name on this farm, you’ve pretty much earned it.
Why do you keep heritage breeds?
Pasture-raised heritage meats provide a healthier alternative for the land, the animals, the farmers, and the consumer. Heritage breeds that can fly, run, mate on their own, and forage for a good portion of their diet take advantage of all that a pasture-based system has to offer. These breeds are also a way for us to help maintain some diversity, both genetic and flavor, in our food system. In this way our farm has an environmental, a culinary, and a conservation mission.
Raising animals sustainably, on a small scale, on-pasture, comes with its own set of challenges, though. I have lost count of how many buckets of water I have carried, either because the pipes were frozen, or because our rotationally grazed poultry were at the far end of the pasture and the hose would not reach them. The slow growth of heritage breeds is double, or more, the time it takes for an industrial breed to reach market weight; that certainly adds to the final cost of our products. This slow growth prepares them for a long, productive outdoor life, and allows them to develop their flavor, which has earned each of the breeds we raise a spot on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. It is the flavor that keeps our customers coming back.
We’re so curious — do you get attached to the turkeys or is it all business?
How can I say this and not have it come off badly … as you know, we raise heritage breeds, which are bred for a long, productive outdoor life. They have acres of pasture, but they completely ignore our fences. They just go wherever they want to — and unless you’re standing next to them you don’t appreciate how big they are. They spend all day, every day running around. If you’re hit in the face with a wing, your eyes will definitely water — they’re so strong. They’ve also eaten all my garlic chives so they’re well pre-seasoned!
At the end of the day, Narragansett turkeys are really large, a lot of work, and don’t like to stay where you put them. By Thanksgiving, you’re ready to have 40 fewer turkeys on the farm! It does help that we still have breeding turkeys expecting to be cared for when we come back from processing day, so that’s less sad. You also end up with a turkey and you know exactly how it was raised, what went into producing that bird, that it was done sustainably, and that it only had its one bad day.
- Biggest challenge in eating? With all we have going on at the farm, I tend to want to work as long as we have daylight. For a large part of the year, this means I struggle to get a home-cooked meal on the table before the kids really should be getting to bed. Also, our 6-year-old son has some definite food preferences. This requires a bit of extra planning. A lot of our meals are served deconstructed so they can be customized to individual tastes.
- How much do you cook at home every week? Probably 85 percent. We might get takeout, go out to eat, or grab dinner at the farmers market once a week.
- 5 things on your grocery list every week? Milk, bread, espresso, fruit, deli meats.
- Where do you shop, primarily? I do quite a bit of bartering and shopping with other farmers, at our local farmers market. For things that I cannot find at the farmers market, I love to shop at Earth Fare (if I am in town).
- What’s the last food thing you splurged on? Artisan bread from Henry’s Bread Kitchen (I bartered lamb chops) and a cheesecake from the grocery store.
- Top 3 default dinners? Tacos (fillings vary), homemade pizza, and some of our pasture-raised heritage meat with local veggies (a favorite is a whole herb roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and braised greens).
- Favorite kitchen tool? It is hard to pick just one, but I am lost without my Crock-Pot. It helps me get delicious food on the table on those long work days, and is perfect for making bone stock overnight.
- Cookbook you actually cook out of? I have a bit of a cookbook obsession. Luckily, our local library has an amazing collection so I do not have to buy them all! Right now I am constantly referring to the River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall (which is great for pasture-raised heritage meats that need a little more care in their cooking, and nose-to-tail eating), the William-Sonoma Food Made Fast Slow Cooker book, No Need to Knead by Susanne Dunaway (my favorite pizza dough and go-to bread recipes are in here), A Year of Pies by Ashley English, and The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt and Ted Lee (I am not from the South, so this book was essential in helping me learn how to prepare regional foods like grits and collards).
Where can people buy your turkeys?
We sell directly to consumers. As of right now, you won’t find our products in any stores. You can find us online by purchasing directly from our store or at our local farmers market.
It’s a bit different, though, because if you buy enough groceries at, say Publix, you can score a free turkey. But if you order one of ours, it’s 10 dollars a pound. So there’s some sticker shock there. We’re not making bank on our turkeys, though. It covers the cost of feed. I don’t even receive a regular paycheck for the work that I do. Part of the learning curve for me has been to find my customer base and connect with them. It can be really disheartening trying to explain why I’m not competing with big-box store prices on my meat.
That makes so much sense. What’s the best way to educate people about heritage breeds?
We have a day at the farm where everyone is welcome to come and see the breeding flock — a few times per year people come for tours. If you really wanted to, you could see them when they hatch, mid-growth, and before they go. We try to let people see every step of the process. People put deposits down on our turkeys, and once every three years or so, we’ll get an orphaned one if someone doesn’t show to pick it up. In that case, we’ll just end up with an extra one for us or to sell at the farmers market.
You mentioned that bartering is a thing at your local farmers market! How does that usually work?
I have traded lamb chops for fresh seafood from the coast, and for bread from Henry’s Bread Kitchen. One of his loaves takes 18 hours from start to finish (while grocery store bread takes closer to 30 minutes). Just like our slow-growing heritage breeds, with time comes flavor and that is something that cannot be rushed. I also trade chickens with another farmer for local, super-fresh, sustainably grown veggies. Pro-tip: Send the cute 6 year-old, with freckles on his nose, to do your bartering. I barter for equal value, but Ezra came back with a pile of fresh veggies and some cut flowers that absolutely exceeded the value of the chicken he took to trade.
Our local farmers market is still growing, but the camaraderie keeps us all coming back. I love our vendors and their passion for food. More than once, when there was a lull in customers, we would be find ourselves feeding each other samples, and getting excited about what amazing offerings we had. I look forward to our Wednesday Blythewood Farmers’ Market, because I know we will be eating so well on Thursday!
Besides turkey, what else will be on your Thanksgiving table this year?
We’re in the South, so sweet potatoes will be on it — in some form. I usually make mine with lemon, nutmeg, and cream (instead of the marshmallow version). I like to make grits, which are like a Southern polenta. (My dad’s family is part Italian.) And Joe’s cousin owns and operates the milling company nearby, so we have a source for locally ground and milled grits. We’ll also have cornbread, and some kind of braised greens. We’re big into nose-to-tail and root-to-leaf eating.
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