By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
As people across the state and country pull from their freezers frozen, pink-skinned, bumpy blocks of what formerly was a living bird, a few folks enjoy their turkey being a bit fresher for their Thanksgiving meals — as in it was just walking around a couple days before it became a holiday dinner.
“I have a broad-breasted white that I’m getting ready to butcher. He’s probably up to around 30 pounds and has been free-ranging all summer long on grains, grass and bugs,” said Sarah Donchi, owner of Kenai Feed and Supply on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Donchi is not alone in her endeavors. Her store caters to those who live a lifestyle revolving around farming and livestock, and in spring she sold turkey poults, along with the young of other edible fowl species.
“I probably sold around 500 of them and I’d guess most, if not all, were for butchering eventually,” she said.
Donchi herself took home several poults, but unlike chickens, turkeys can be a bit more difficult to raise. They’re more sensitive to sudden changes in temperature, and while they eventually grow larger than chickens, when young they are just as susceptible to predators, as Donchi found out firsthand.
“I started with 15 of them,” she said, “but ravens came through and killed quite a few of the poults.”
Despite the challenges, Donchi said that she prefers the work of raising her own gobbler to gobbling
down a store-bought turkey.
“It tastes way better, that’s a big part of it, but also it’s nice to know exactly what you’re eating, what went into it, and how it was handled,” she said.
Donchi said that she and her husband share the duties of butchering and cleaning, and favor the traditional method of dispatching a bird.
“We use an axe and a chopping block. My husband is the head chopper — literally, and then we’ll pluck and clean it ourselves,” she said.
Killing a bird that for many months lived somewhat like a pet can be tough, but Donchi said she goes into the project with the right mindset.
“I never name anything I’m going to eat. So it was just ‘the turkey,’ that was what we called it,” she said.
Saki Bartch, of Nikiski, also raises turkeys, and since she retired three years ago she said she has time to tend to between 15 to 20 turkeys at any given time, as well as dozens of chickens and a few ducks and geese.
“I raise birds to eat, and eat their eggs, year-round. I also sell eggs to Cad-Re, Kenai Feed and Supply, and a few others,” she said.
Like Donchi’s bird, Bartch’s brood spends a lot of time outdoors eating natural items in a half-acre
area covered with gillnetting, not to keep the fowl in, but to keep the raptors and other birds of prey out.
“Eagles will just perch next to the area, watching them,” she said.
In the evenings and in winter, the birds get moved into a building to keep them warm and healthy, but with so many birds a few have to be culled out from time to time.
“I raise them to get more females for laying, so I butcher out a lot of the toms,” she said.
Store-bought birds sometimes are hybrids of species crossed to produce the most breast meat, at times to the detriment of the bird’s mobility. But Bartch only raises “heritage” birds — strains retaining historic characteristics.
“These aren’t the ones like in the stores that look like butterballs and eat until they tip over or die. I have Chocolates, Bourbon Reds and Blue State birds. These look like turkeys you’d see in the wild,” she said.
Because she raises natural birds, Bartch also gets asked to show off her fowl to area youth at schools and churches, so they can see what a real, living turkey looks like. Many people, she said, only know turkey as something found in the freezer section at the grocery store.
“It’s amazing how many people — not just kids, but adults, too — think you can’t do this kind of thing,” she said, referring to raising turkeys at home.
Like Donchi, Bartch dispatched her own bird, and switched feed weeks earlier to fatten the bird up so it wouldn’t be paltry poultry.
“When winter came, the birds went onto ‘cob,’ which is corn, oats, barley and a bit of molasses. It really thickens them up for eating,” she said.
The Chocolate tom she selected for her holiday meal ended up weighing in at 18 pounds, not bad for a heritage bird, which are significantly smaller than hybridized birds. What they lack in size, they make up for in flavor, Bartch said.
“There’s nothing better,” she said. “And since raising your own turkey is better for you and rewarding to do, it’s an all-round good deal.”