Martha’s Vineyard turkeys: bargain birds to chocolate breeds

Locally grown, locally dispatched, locally consumed. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

About 46 million Turkeys land on Thanksgiving tables across the country next week. Some will be frozen, some fresh, some just a few days from local farms. In the days before Thanksgiving, turkeys filled store bins and farm freezers priced from $0.58 per pound for a frozen bird, pop-up thermometer included, to $6.99 per pound for a turkey raised organically, with sustainable farming techniques, here on Martha’s Vineyard.

Stop & Shop offered bargain birds at stores in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, for $0.58 per pound, as long as you buy $25 worth of other groceries, and use your Stop & Shop loyalty card.

Like many large chain grocery stores, Stop & Shop sells Thanksgiving turkeys as a loss-leader, a common retail technique during the holidays. Stores offer turkeys at a price below their cost to draw customers. The store turns that loss into a profit when you buy all the stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie filling, after you pick out your turkey.

Stop & Shop builds the loss-leader theory into the bargain, by requiring that you buy $25 worth of groceries other than the turkey, to get the bargain price.

At $0.58 per pound, you can land a 16-pound turkey on your holiday table for $9.28. Take advantage of the store’s popular gas points promotion, which offers $0.20 off per gallon of fuel, and you can reduce that price by $3.20 the next time you buy 16 gallons of gas, bringing the cost of the Thanksgiving centerpiece to $6.08, a bargain by any standard.

From the butcher

At Shiretown Meats in Edgartown, David Vaughn sells more than 300 turkeys during the Thanksgiving season, at $3.39 per pound, the same price as last year. He doesn’t worry much about competition from the $0.58 frozen turkey across the way.

“I sell nothing but Bell & Evans fresh turkeys, the best turkey on the market,” Mr. Vaughn said. “I’ve been in business for 35 years, and I’ve never mud-wrestled with them. I sell a better product, that’s how I do it.”

Mr. Vaughn said some of his customers have reserved Thanksgiving turkeys with him for decades. He keeps careful records to discern trends in the size of the birds most in demand. That helps when he gets a call from the Pennsylvania company in August, asking how many turkeys he wants to buy. In recent years a 14- to 16-pound turkey has been the most popular, but he sells turkeys as small as eight pounds and as big as 38 pounds.

The old Reliable

Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs has been putting Thanksgiving turkeys on Island tables for more than 60 years. With a $50 order, you can pick up a frozen Jennie-O turkey for $0.69 per pound. The store also sells other fresh and frozen turkeys, including a Jaindl Farms all-natural bird for $2.79 per pound.

Owner Bob Pacheco said he does not remember any funny or unusual funny stories about Thanksgiving turkeys over the years.

“There’s nothing funny about selling turkeys,” the good natured proprietor said with a laugh. “We take orders, that guarantees you the size you want. If you wait until the day before, you might not get the size you want. We buy 10- to 16-pound turkeys. Sometimes there are no 10-pound turkeys left. There’s nothing funny about turkeys, you do the best you can, with the cards they deal you.”

At Cronig’s

Steve Bernier, proprietor of Cronig’s Market says consumers are more discerning about the food they buy these days, and that extends to turkeys.

“The trend is toward natural, organic, Island-grown,” Mr. Bernier said. “People are more concerned about what they are consuming, being more plugged in to sustainable food. It starts out cultural, it starts out health related.”

With mass producers trying to shave every penny out of turkey farming economics, a premium bird is sometimes a tough sell, especially with family budgets strained.

“It’s two different worlds,” Mr. Bernier said. “Going to market with humane growing styles, humane slaughter, and then the quality aspect, you’re in another league. Some people have to trade down, because the belts are tight. We haven’t seen that yet, but this Thanksgiving, this Christmas, we might.”

Cronig’s sells a variety of fresh turkeys, including Island-grown birds from Good Farm and Cleaveland Farm for $6.99 per pound, two varieties of Bell & Evans birds, as well as turkeys from mass producers Butterball and Shadybrook Farms.

Greg Pachico, who manages the Cronig’s meat department, said in recent years people have become accustomed to a plentiful choice of Thanksgiving turkeys.

“People are waiting and waiting until the last minute,” Mr. Pachico said. “I think people aren’t sure what’s going on for Thanksgiving, how many people are coming, are they going somewhere.”

He has also noticed that holiday gatherings are larger, and hosts serve more pork and beef. “It used to be everybody got a turkey dinner and that’s it. They seem to be having bigger parties, and it’s not all about turkey. Now I sell everything.”

At the Institute

The Farm Institute in Edgartown has raised turkeys for the Thanksgiving market for several years now. They get one-day-old turkeys in the mail from a mainland hatchery in the spring, and raise them to maturity at Katama Farm.

The young chicks go in a hot brooder for three weeks, and then get turned outside where they have room to roam and graze on grasses and bugs. They also get a carefully planned diet of corn, barley, oats and minerals, in five different mixtures suited to the phases of growth.

Farm manager Julie Olson processed 110 turkeys for Thanksgiving customers this year. They sell for $6.50 per pound, and the farm sold out quickly.

“We have somewhat of a following,” Ms. Olson said. “We have people that know to come to us. We’ve tried to make it so that people who live here, and really care about Island-grown food, it’s a little easier.”

She once raised the same species of birds used by large scale commercial producers, which primarily grow broad-breasted bronze, and large whites, breeds that grow very large, very quickly. She found those breeds did not thrive at Katama Farm.

“The breeds we’ve chosen to raise are heritage breeds, kind of like an heirloom vegetable,” Ms. Olson said.

The heritage breeds were once common in Colonial times. The farm raises Narragansett, black Spanish, standard bronze, and chocolate turkeys.

That’s right, chocolate. She said that particular breed sometimes prompts a double take from farm visitors. “They’re really beautiful,” Ms. Olson said. “They are a rich chocolate color.”

Ms. Olson said the heritage breeds are very different from store-bought birds.

“It has a completely different flavor and texture. You cook it differently,” Ms. Olson said. “There are people who would taste it and not like it, because they are used to a conventional turkey.”

While she is an expert at raising Thanksgiving turkeys and takes great pride in her work, there is little chance Ms. Olson is going to eat into the profit.

“I don’t really like turkey,” she said. “I do it because I like raising animals in a happy way, the good side of agriculture.”