Alaska farmer grows his own turkeys

Posted: Monday, November 25, 2002

MATANUSKA VALLEY (AP) -- Anthony Schmidt is not your typical American poultry farmer. Besides running a little farm within driving distance of a glacier and refusing to inject his poultry with antibiotics or preservatives, he lets his chickens, ducks and turkeys wander around -- within limits.

''I can't do (total) free-range,'' he says. ''Just for the simple fact that I've watched ravens take my baby ducks right out of the pen. I've watched eagles and goshawks come in and catch my birds. Then you've got fox and neighborhood dogs ...''

So one of his outdoor poultry pens is protected by the mesh of an overhead net, while the other has a roof.

''They've got big pens and they're outside where they get some bugs,'' Schmidt says. ''We throw them grass and weeds all summer long, so they're getting a diverse diet. ... Right now that pen is eating about eight bags a day.''

That would be eight 50-pound sacks of corn, wheat and sorghum, which cost Schmidt about $500 a week.

Once his turkeys (save a few favorites he'll keep alive as breeding stock) are slaughtered, cleaned, scalded, chilled and sealed this week, they might be the only really fresh turkeys in Alaska.

''There is no way you can buy a turkey in this state that's fresh, like this, unless it was bought where somebody raised it and butchered it right here,'' he says.

Supermarket turkeys may bear a government seal that declares them ''fresh.'' But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that label only guarantees that a turkey hasn't been frozen to a temperature colder than 26 degrees.

It doesn't address the question of how long it's been dead, and poultry producers aren't obligated to say.

Schmidt suspects most holiday turkeys were slaughtered weeks ago, if not months. That's how long it would take the industry to process the estimated 46 million turkeys Americans will consume on Thanksgiving Day.

''There's no way those millions of turkeys got done just the week before (Thanksgiving),'' he says. ''They started months ago. Months ago. And as soon as that bird goes in the freezer, moisture starts getting drawn out.''

Wanting to know exactly what he was swallowing was one of the reasons Schmidt began raising poultry in the first place. Five years ago, he acquired a few pigs, some chickens and about three or four turkeys, which he placed in pens on his 1-acre property off Gershmel Loop, just south of the Parks Highway near the intersection with the Glenn Highway.

''We were tired of buying the stuff in the stores with a lot of chemicals in it and preservatives, so it'll have a long shelf life, and not knowing how it was raised,'' Schmidt says. ''So we started raising our own stuff ... and then it kinda grew.''

Now it's a multifaceted business. Schmidt and his partner Phyllis and their five children currently maintain about 300 laying hens that allow them to sell about 100 dozen fresh eggs a week to local buyers. In the spring, they import a wide variety of baby poultry and sell them to local feed stores.

Last year, Schmidt says, Triple D sold between 45,000 and 50,000 head of poultry in Alaska, including 278 Thanksgiving turkeys. Most of the rest were live chicks, which go for about $2 to $3 apiece.

''If it was just the chick business, we'd go broke,'' he says. ''You know there is only a few cents per chick profit, but it's all part of the farm business.... The fresh eggs we sell are a little bit of income, doing the pigs is a little income, doing the turkeys is a little income.''

Schmidt was raised in the farm country of North Dakota and Eastern Washington, then worked a while in a poultry factory, where thousands of birds were housed indoors in small enclosures.

''Some of the meat birds are raised in pens where they can hardly turn around,'' he says. ''They don't see the ground ever in their whole life. They don't see sunshine ...''

So when Schmidt began raising meat poultry himself, he deliberately took care to give his turkeys and chickens a lot more room to roam. Since they're in pens, he doesn't consider them truly ''free range.''

But the USDA would. The federal agency's Web site notes that producers only need to demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed ''access to the outside'' in order to be labeled ''free range'' or ''free roaming.''

Schmidt does advertise his poultry as free of antibiotics.

Most major poultry factories Outside routinely distribute antibiotics in their feed as a means of preventing poultry disease.

''They've got several hundred thousand birds, and they can't afford to have coccidiosis or something else running on down through their flock and putting 80 percent of their birds down,'' Schmidt says.

Schmidt says animal disease is much less a threat in Alaska because of the smaller populations and cooler temperatures.

As far as freshness, Schmidt claims an unqualified victory. The fresher and moister the turkey, he says, the juicier and tastier it'll be after it's cooked.

''I've had so many customers say, 'Man, we took that thing out of the oven and when we cut it the juice just came running out.' ... That's the difference. It's a fresh bird.''

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