REISTERSTOWN – Raising and killing turkeys is a tradition for the Reynold and Lemmon families of the R&L Hay & Straw Farm here.
This is their seventh year in the turkey business. They started out with 200 poults, or baby turkeys, and this year they have about 2,000, said Tom Reynold. Farming is their livelihood and their way of life.
While families like the Reynolds and Lemmons celebrate the turkey harvest, animal activists are protesting it. It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without turkey, but that’s exactly what some animal lovers say they want – a holiday without slaughter.
It was a family affair in the butcher room Monday, as about a dozen family members and friends who volunteered to work the assembly line repeated the mantra, “Bag ’em, tag ’em, weigh ’em” over and over.
At the front of the line, workers pulled dressed turkeys out of vats of icy water pink with blood, and hung them on shackles. Next the birds were inspected for any missed pinfeathers or blemishes, the giblets were stuffed back inside and the carcasses sprayed with fresh water. The turkeys then are slipped into plastic bags with a “diaper” to absorb moisture, hoisted onto a scale and sent down a conveyor belt into a cooler where they join their mates waiting to be picked up by customers.
Volunteers received a sweatshirt and a turkey. Emily Nagowski, 13, Reynold’s niece, had the added bonus of missing school.
She came all the way from West Virginia with her mother, Melissa Nagowski, to help. This year Nagowski is taking 25 birds back to sell to local restaurants.
There is just no comparing a fresh farm bird to a mass-produced one, said Reynold. Prices reflect that. While fresh supermarket turkey goes for as little as 79 cents a pound, R&L Farm fresh turkeys cost $1.49 a pound.
It’s too much at any price, say animal activists. Terry Cummings, president of Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, held a vigil in front of the Giant Food grocery store in Bethesda last week to protest the custom of serving turkeys on Thanksgiving.
“We’d like to see people start new traditions, and celebrate with the animals instead of by eating them,” said Cummings, whose organization specializes in taking in abandoned or injured farm animals. She suggested substituting tofu or other non-meat product for turkey this Thanksgiving.
If current numbers are any indication, Americans won’t be abandoning their turkey any time soon. The typical American gobbled 14 pounds of turkey in 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last year in Maryland, more than 600,000 turkeys were grown on 49 farms, up from 260,000 in 1995, said Don Vandrey, Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman.
Those 600,000 turkeys are raised in deplorable conditions, said Cummings. And common farm practices of removing the birds’ beaks and toes are cruel, she said.
But those practices can actually protect domesticated turkeys, which can be quite vicious, Reynold said.
“If they see a spot of blood, they’ll peck and peck that bird to death,” he said. The first year they raised turkeys, they did not de-toe and de-beak and 50 were killed.
As of Thanksgiving, R&L will have processed more than 1,300 birds, leaving about 500 for Christmas, Reynold said. As workers labored in the butcher room, the remaining turkeys squawked and gobbled, flocking to the windows of the barn whenever people approached. Large toms with iridescent blue heads sported blood red wattles and snoods, the fleshy appendage on top of the beak. As they strutted proudly, displaying a full tail of white feathers, Vicky Lemmon confirmed a long-held rumor about domesticated turkeys: “They really are dumb.”
Animal activists say that’s only if you haven’t taken the time to get to know them. Turkeys have just as much personality as a family dog or cat, Cummings said.
“Turkeys are quite affectionate, they are wonderful birds with wonderful personalities.”