Guest Blogger: Lisa M. Hamilton on "The Transformation"
(Photo by Jason Houston)
We'd like to thank Lisa M. Hamilton for sharing her photo essay, "The Transformation", with THE MOYERS BLOG. We invite you to respond below.
Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Lisa M. Hamilton are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.
A Community Comes Together to Conserve Two Endangered Species: Rare-Breed Turkeys, and Turkey Farmers
In 2004, Slow Food USA launched a campaign called Renewing America’s Food Traditions (or “RAFT”), whose purpose was to save endangered food species by getting farmers to grow them—and consumers to eat them. Members in Sonoma County, California, set out to revive heritage breed turkeys, but immediately were faced with a new issue: there were no farmers to raise them. In the early 20th century the region was known as the “Egg Basket to the World” and had as many as 6,000 small poultry farms. But beginning in the 1950s, factors ranging from urbanization to industry consolidation to the advent of breakfast cereal wiped out nearly the entire industry. Today only a handful of small-scale poultry farmers remain, and none was about to jump into the unpredictable business of raising commercially unfamiliar breeds of turkeys.
Undaunted, the Slow Food members decided to start from the ground up. Three years ago, they joined forces with a local 4H group to start a sort of “turkey CSA”: Each year the 4H kids raise the turkeys at home, just as they would with a cow or a pig, and along the way learn about responsibility, leadership, and practical agricultural economics. In return, Slow Food enlists people in the community to buy the turkeys. Because the kids agree to raise the turkeys organically, the members give them a generous price per pound. As organizer Jim Reichardt explained, the lesson in agriculture economics becomes a lesson in the economics of sustainability; for instance, the more the animals are out on pasture, the less feed the kids need to buy. While the margins in conventional turkey farming are tight, these kids have discovered a potentially profitable alternative. For now the venture is just a summer job, but organizers are hopeful that it could eventually lead to the revitalization of the industry. “It might not happen this year or next,” Reichardt said, “but someday we hope we’ll find a kid who wants to take this on and run with it.”
With this near-perfect solution, the Slow Food members faced one final challenge: there was no small-scale processing plant that could “harvest” the birds. Again, they looked to the community. In what has become an annual tradition, the weekend before Thanksgiving everybody— kids, parents, Slow Food members, local chefs, and other volunteers— comes together to turn the turkeys from feathered friends to holiday entrees. This year I joined the event, which Reichardt has dubbed “The Transformation.” Some of the photos are not for the faint of heart, but if you eat turkey and care about local food, I think it’s worth a trip.
Journalist Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on food and agriculture, particularly the stories of farmers and ranchers. Her work has appeared in THE NATION, HARPER'S, and ORION, as well as on nationally syndicated radio. Her narrative nonfiction book DEEPLY ROOTED: UNCONVENTIONAL FARMERS IN THE AGE OF AGRIBUSINESS" will be published by Counterpoint Press in May 2009.