Thursday, December 9, 2010


In honor of Thanksgiving, I purchased our family a Freebird: a free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free (and fresh, organic, and local) turkey. It was as tasty as it was karma-neutral. The bird's happy days gobbling in a field were perceptible in every bite. As far as I'm concerned, this turkey had only one downside: price.

Freebirds aren't free.

Over recent weeks, my husband and I have spent many happy hours perusing the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog: we are planning to acquire chickens and ducks in the spring

While we will be new to actually raising poultry, we've been fans of the poultry catalog for a couple of years.

A few years ago, we lived in Death Valley: the hottest, lowest, driest place in America. Or, as Obi-Wan Kenobi observes as he stands upon Dante's View and gestures towards Furnace Creek Ranch, "the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the entire galaxy."

On the whole, I found Death Valley to be largely free from scum and villainy. Most of the time.

But life there was abundant with complication. Rising to the top of the long list of complexities was the hour-long drive to the nearest grocery store in Pahrump, Nevada.

We tried not to go often, depending instead on planning ahead and stocking up on basics. Failing that, we either did without, bought something from the twice-monthly Schwann's truck visit, or paid an exorbitant price at the one little convenience store in the Valley.

And, every two weeks or so, we'd make the pilgrimage into town.

Halfway between home and the grocery store, we would pass through the intersection that comprised the town of Death Valley Junction (alleged population: 4).

Death Valley Junction was the home of the Amargosa Opera House - where Marta Beckett was still performing - and the Amargosa Inn - which was, occasionally and unpredictably, open to providing accommodations to travelers. And... well... not much else. Sometimes a mustang ambled through.

But there were peacocks!

A flock of them made the Opera House their home. More reliably present than any other inhabitants of Death Valley Junction, they strutted around the parking lot as if they owned the place - which they may well have. Sometimes they wandered into the road, tail feathers spread, proudly preening at their ability to slow passing tanker trucks.

Our young daughter loved to get out and look at the peacocks. She followed them around in a vain effort to become friends. Peacocks, as it turns out, can fly for short distances - up to and including the top of the Opera House - when encouraged to do so by the friendly advances of a two-year-old girl.

One day, while sitting by the yucca and mesquite thicket that dominated what was once a parking lot and watching our daughter toss cheerios at the birds, my husband marveled aloud at the fact that the peacocks were there. "Where," he asked, "do you even get a peacock?"

Where indeed?

We got home, hopped on our dial-up internet connection and, 30 painful minutes of slow page loads later, discovered Murray McMurray Hatchery.

A week later, we had a catalog. Heaven!

I've railed lately against the sheer number of choices available to us these days. I've opined that more options don't actually make us any happier.

Thinking about a poultry catalog makes me want to take it all back.

Who knew that you could buy peacocks, swans, and guinea fowl? Who knew there were so many different types of chickens, ducks, and turkeys? Prior to my inaugural poultry catalog, I had honestly believed that all chickens were just that: chickens. One variety - one species - one bird. I thought that chicken decor displaying a panoply of colors and feathers were simply fanciful examples of artist's license.

What can I say? I was raised a city chick of the era before urban chickens.

I know better now that I've opened the Pandora's Box of poultry.
Our youngest family member ponders poultry.

We still have a dog-eared copy of the McMurray catalog. And it was with this catalog that my husband presented me after our journey to pick up our natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced, local, free-range turkey.

Which had, of course, just caused us both a bit of sticker shock.

Catalog in hand, he noted that, for approximately twice the price of this one turkey, Murray McMurray would send us 20 newly hatched turkey poults. Birds that we could provide with all of the support and loving care necessary to ensure that they, too, would grow into natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced freebirds. Turkeys that - assuming they made it to 16 pounds of post-processing meat - would have a street value of approximately $1,200.

Which isn't, let's be honest, that much money. It's not enough income to put the effort into raising 20 turkeys. Once you buy the turkeys, and the feed, and some shelter, and then all the necessary equipment for processing, and get them to some sort of market, you haven't raked in a fortune.

Turkeys aren't a gold mine.

But, what if you aren't looking for a gold mine? What if you are simply looking to eat some turkey once or twice a month? What if you aren't measuring potential income, but whether or not you can put some free-range, happy meat on the table? Think about provisions, and not profits. When viewed through that lens, it starts to seem sane. To me.

Whether or not I'm a good judge of sanity is - of course - open to debate.

When my mom was a child, she spent some time with her aunt in Tennessee. Sometimes, on Sundays, they had chicken. This chicken didn't come from the store.

I could try to tell the story the way she would, but I'd get it all wrong. And offend the vegans and faint-of-heart. Suffice it to say that the actual deed involved an axe, her aunt (who, as recounted in tales, seems like someone with whom you wouldn't want to tussle), and the chopping block; and it culminated in my mom's keen understanding of the phrase, "running around like a chicken with it's head cut off."

Chickens went from the barnyard to the table in the course of an afternoon. But it took some work to get it there. Which is, maybe, where the whole endeavor looses it's appeal for a lot of people.

After all, isn't that why we have jobs? So we can earn income which can be used to buy karmic turkey for $3.60 a pound? (Or for as little as a buck-fifty, if you are going with the flash-frozen Jennie-O). So we don't have to trouble ourselves with the feathers and entrails.

The thing is, I - like just about everyone I know - have no data on exactly how much work it is to raise turkeys. Or any other animal I might think of as meat.

Is having a couple on hand, letting them forage for food, keeping a few to lay and set eggs and ensure a continued supply, and harvesting them every couple of weeks more work and money than it's worth?

I guess it depends on what each of us consider to be worthwhile.

We aren't, of course, buying turkeys anytime soon. Which is a good thing.

Our family is having enough trouble trying to figure out which types of ducks and chickens we want to round out our small flock. Debates over the virtues of Cayugas vs. Khaki Campbells vs. Runners, and Aracunas vs. Silver-laced Wyandottes are taking up enough of our time already.

And none of our flock-to-be are heading for the chopping block. I think they will end up as pets that lay eggs. Which - by the by - makes them head-and-shoulders more useful than our cat.

But I think - and hope - that raising them will provide insight into the larger question of poultry production. And whether, next year, we will be shocked that our local, free-range, happy turkey - at $3.60 a pound - costs so much.

Or whether, given insight into the work involved, we will instead be shocked that it could cost so little.

1 comment:

  1. "On the whole, I found Death Valley to be largely free from scum and villainy. Most of the time." That's because the principal of the scum and villiany worked down in Shoshone...