It’s the centerpiece of the season.
Americans gobble an estimated 40 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, or about half of all US whole turkey sales for the entire year. Seven out of eight American families—nearly 90 percent—place a whole turkey in the middle of their Thanksgiving table. Christmas comes in second, with about half as many birds, followed closely by Easter.
It’s probably no surprise that the United States is the largest turkey producer and exporter of turkey products. What many might not know is Washington state once had a big part in production, raising more than 1.5 million birds a year. Since commercial turkey production peaked here in 1945, Washington state’s turkey farming has nearly disappeared. By the early 1970s, it had dwindled to fewer than half a million birds. These days, numbers are even smaller, hovering around 6,000 turkeys.
In 2017, the year for which the most recent United States Department of Agriculture census data is available, Washington state had 684 farms raising turkeys. Less than half offered turkey sales. Almost all were small, family-owned operations. That’s not surprising; out of a total of some 35,000 farms in Washington, 95 percent are family owned. While there was a small uptick from 2012 to 2017 in the number of turkeys—5,902 compared to 5,326—the total still averages fewer than 10 birds, many of which are heritage breeds, per farm.
Today, explains Kellie Henwood, the Regional Small Farms Program coordinator at Washington State University Jefferson County Extension, “there are mega-poultry farms in the US, and they’re owned by a very small number of corporations. Before the corporatization and conglomeration of our food system, Washington had quite a thriving poultry industry with chickens and turkeys being raised in large pockets across the state on small family farms.”
Henwood works in Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties. “From what I’ve learned historically, local agriculture in each county featured thriving poultry farms,” she says. That includes not only turkeys but chickens, too. Consider The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s humorous 1945 account of chicken farming near Chimacum in the 1920s. In chapter 7, MacDonald, then a young bride, compares her 40-acre farm to the Maddock ranch, “one of the most prosperous” in the area.
The Maddocks had five sons who graduated from the Washington State Agricultural College, which would become Washington State University. “The barns were like Carnation Milk advertisements—scrubbed and with the latest equipment for lighting, milking, cleaning, and feeding; the bunkhouses were clean, comfortable, and airy; the pig pens were cement and immaculate; the chicken houses were electric-lighted, many-windowed, white and clean; the duck pens, beehives, bull pens, calf houses, turkey runs, rabbit hutches, and the milk house were new, clean, and modern.”
These days, it’s especially difficult for small-scale farmers to raise heritage turkey breeds, Henwood says. First, “It’s a challenge to be profitable. Heritage breeds can take longer to grow and mature to the point they’re ready to harvest compared to the commercial breeds that are raised on larger-scale poultry farms where birds are turned around quickly because of breed selection.”
Organically raised birds add another layer of expense due to the higher cost of organic feed and the time it takes to grow a large bird. Not only that, but turkeys “have a high mortality rate. Poults require particular conditions, and some breeds can be susceptible to certain diseases,” Henwood says, noting last year’s massive avian flu outbreak, which caused an estimated 20 percent drop in the number of turkeys available for Thanksgiving. When cases are detected, entire flocks have to be culled. Some 7 million birds were destroyed last year due to avian flu. Inflation coupled with the effects of the outbreak led to price increases of nearly 20 percent.
Other challenges include regulatory barriers, such as different levels of licensing, and lack of USDA-certified processing infrastructure. “It’s not the number of inspectors,” Henwood says. “It’s the dwindling number of available facilities. There’s a huge bottleneck for all meat processors in Washington.”
All these factors affect the resilience of small turkey and other family-run farms that raise poultry and other meats—so much so, Henwood says, “We who work in the local food systems feel it’s a state of emergency.”
At the same time, she says, “farmers have an opportunity to gain a huge customer base. There are high holiday sales for turkeys. There’s a lot of demand for local meats.”
Thanksgiving Day Roast Turkey and Gravy
from The Crimson Spoon: Plating Regional Cuisine on the Palouse
Photos Armstrong Photography
In his 2013 cookbook, former WSU executive chef Jamie Callison notes he prefers “cooking a younger, smaller turkey as it more reliably produces tender and moister meat than a larger one.”
2 ounces butter (½ stick), melted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper or seasoning salt
3 to 4 cups southern-style cornbread stuffing
2 cups turkey stock (see below) or unsalted or low-sodium chicken broth or stock
4 cups turkey stock (see below) or unsalted or low-sodium chicken broth or stock
¼ cup turkey fat or canola oil or a combination
3 tablespoons flour
½ cup whipping cream, warmed
1 roast turkey neck
Roast the turkey
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove gizzards and neck from inside of turkey cavity, reserving the neck. Rinse the inside of turkey with water until it is clear. Do not wash the exterior of the turkey. Dry inside and outside with paper towels.
Brush turkey with melted butter; season inside and outside with salt and pepper. Brush neck with butter and season with salt and pepper. Lightly pack stuffing in turkey. Transfer turkey and neck to a roasting pan. Roast 25 minutes, then begin basting turkey with stock. Roast turkey until meat is fully cooked, about 4½ hours, basting with stock every 15 minutes and removing neck when it is golden brown and fully cooked.
Allow neck to cool, then remove meat from the bone and roughly chop; set aside for the gravy. Remove turkey from the oven. Remove stuffing from the turkey and transfer it to a baking dish. Transfer turkey to a platter and rest for 20 minutes; slice meat and keep warm. Bake stuffing until cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Make the gravy
Pour the stock from the roasting pan into a high-sided bowl, and transfer the bowl to an ice water bath. This will cause the fat to rise to the top and solidify. Once the fat has solidified, spoon it off and reserve it for the gravy. Then add enough stock to the defatted stock to measure 4 cups. Heat roasting pan on the stovetop over low heat; add about 1 cup of the stock, and whisk to loosen pan drippings. Transfer back to the rest of the stock. Measure ¼ cup turkey fat, adding canola oil if necessary. Whisk together fat and flour in a saucepan over medium heat until it turns golden blond. Whisk in stock and bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook 20 minutes, whisking occasionally. Whisk in cream and chopped turkey neck meat. Season with salt and pepper.
Yield: a 14-pound roast turkey (about 2½ pounds white meat and 1½ pounds dark meat) and 4 cups gravy.
Notes: For safe turkey and stuffing cooking tips, consult the USDA website.
Allowing the turkey to rest after roasting helps keep juices in the meat when the turkey is sliced. It’s important to season your turkey with salt and pepper before putting it in a roasting pan. This way loose seasonings don’t end up in the bottom of the roasting pan and potentially make your gravy too salty.
For a lighter version of the gravy, omit whipping cream, turkey fat, and flour, and instead thicken with a cornstarch slurry made by whisking ¼ cup cornstarch with equal parts cold water and then whiskey is added into the boiling turkey stock.
Bones from 14-pound roast turkey, broken into sections
3 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped celery
2 rosemary sprigs
4 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Put turkey bones in a large stockpot; add cold water to cover by 3 to 4 inches. Bring to simmer, then add vegetables, herbs, and peppercorns. Simmer over low heat 4 to 6 hours, skimming foam and fat. Strain broth. Cool to room temperature, then immediately place stock into multiple smaller containers to allow for rapid cooling. Refrigerate immediately.
Yield: about 6 cups.