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Talking Turkey 

The care and feeding of your Thanksgiving bird

"The older a tom turkey gets, the meaner he gets," says Diana Holcomb of Painted Oak Farm in Chester, SC. She and her husband John raise turkeys for Circle S Ranch Inc. of Monroe, NC. "Before the turkeys get here, they've had their toenails and the top part of their beak lasered off. Otherwise they would kill each other as they got older. If a turkey displays any weakness at all, the others will literally peck him to death. They can still do that without the toenails and beak, but it takes them longer. Usually I break up the fights before that can happen. They remind me of teenagers."

Four times a year, 16,000 to 17,000 day-old chicks are shipped on heated trucks into the Holcomb's farm from a Circle S Ranch hatchery. The poults (young turkeys) are put in a special heat-controlled barn.

"We unload the turkeys early in the day so the chicks have a chance to become acclimated and find their water and food. Some of them are so new they still have egg shell clinging to them. We probably lose a couple hundred who are either too weak or can't find their food."

After a few weeks, the Holcombs separate the turkeys into two groups and place them into two climate-controlled, 8000-square-foot barns. There the growing turkeys have the opportunity to run freely.

The first stage of turkey farming occurs on a breeding farm. Holcomb said breeding toms, which can weigh up to 100 pounds, have one designated person, or handler, who "milks" the tom. Female breeding turkeys are then artificially inseminated. The incubation period to hatch a turkey egg is 28 days. After birth, a person determines the sex. Since male turkeys produce more meat, they are preferred. For the past eight years the Holcombs have raised male turkeys for Circle S Ranch. They take in day-old poults and sell them as 14- or 15-week old turkeys weighing 22 to 25 pounds.

Turkeys originated in North America and have lived here for approximately 10 million years. Flocks of wild turkeys are a common sight in the North Carolina mountains; while native wild turkeys have dark luxurious feathers, domesticated turkeys are primarily white so the feathers do not pigment the skin. Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have more breast meat and meatier thighs and have a compact build with shorter, stockier legs, a thicker, shorter neck, and a fatter body. The most common domesticated breeds are Bronze, Broad Breasted Bronze, Broad Breasted Large White, Black, Bourbon Red, White Holland, Narragansett, and Beltsville Small White.

North Carolina and Minnesota typically dog each other for the number one spot in national turkey production. For 2003, Minnesota ranks first while last year North Carolina did. This year North Carolina will produce 45 million birds, which is down one percent from 2002. Six states account for about two-thirds of all turkeys produced in the United States: Minnesota, North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, Virginia, and California. Union County, NC is one of the top turkey producing counties in the United States.

During the past eight years, fewer medications have been given to the turkeys. Holcomb said, "Consumers are more concerned today. Years ago turkeys were inoculated to prevent many diseases. Now we have better sanitation and facilities and we don't need to do that."

The feed ingredients are determined by Circle S Ranch and change throughout the turkeys' development. The turkeys at Painted Oak eat about two tons per day. On average, about 75 pounds of feed is required to grow a 30-pound tom turkey.

The only downside to turkey farming is the smell and cleaning out the barns. After each flock of birds is raised, the barn is totally cleaned and disinfected for the next flock. This practice helps prevent the spread of disease from one flock to another. Holcomb said, "After the turkeys leave, the barns are thoroughly cleaned. I don't like the smell, but my husband, who works a day job, says that smell is the smell of money."

Many Americans enjoy the aroma of a traditional turkey roasting in the oven on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, the National Turkey Federation estimates that 95 percent eat turkey on Thanksgiving. But Holcomb doesn't. Although the rest of her family enjoys turkey on Thanksgiving, she lost the taste for turkey a few years back. Instead, she says, "I prefer ham at Thanksgiving."

Eaters' Digest

As of October 1, 2003, North Carolinians can have wine shipped directly to them pursuant to a law passed on July 1. I called and emailed some California wineries to see if I could order wine from them through mailing lists or online. None of the wineries I contacted had received the necessary permit from the North Carolina ABC board yet, although Beringer Winery told me they had applied for the permit and should be ready to ship to North Carolina within 30 to 60 days. Jackie Downer, Vice President and General Manager of Clos Pegase, said their winery had a legal, three-tier system before the law was passed and they are now waiting for their distributor in North Carolina to release the labels so they can ship into North Carolina under the new guidelines. Some Napa bouquet wineries were unaware the law had changed and had yet to apply for the permit.

To follow the Raw Food Diet, one says goodbye to prepared foods, canned foods, frozen foods, the microwave, the stove, and the oven. In their place come the dehydrator, food processor, and a juicer. Wine is OK, because it is never heated, but beer has to go since the hops are boiled, and alcohol is unacceptable since the ingredients are distilled. About one million Americans participate in some aspect of the raw food, or living food diet. The holidays can prove to be more challenging. Thus for those who've gone completely raw, a local support group is being formed. For more information, call Julie Butterworth at 704-556-7617.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email:

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