Bob Neal’s well-fed,

free range turkeys fetch

a pretty penny.

NEW SHARON (AP) – After they are herded into the largest of the seven pens at Bob Neal’s turkey farm and get their first taste of the salad bar, the 276 turkeys start attacking it like there’s no tomorrow.

With Thanksgiving drawing near, of course, precious few tomorrows await all 2,200 gobblers residing on Neal’s 60-acre spread in the western Maine foothills. But until then, life is good.

“They’re in turkey heaven,” said Neal, who stood by the gate as the birds in the 11/2-acre range checked out their new surroundings and nibbled at the goodies that awaited them.

The pen had been fallow for more than a year so that layers of manure from previous flocks could work their way into the soil. Three-foot-high weeds had sprouted, and the greens were supplemented by hundreds of pounds of tomatoes lost to the first freeze, as well as cucumbers, carrots, beets and chard that never got harvested because heavy rain left them caked in mud.

All of those veggies would soon be history.

“There won’t be anything green in this yard in little over a week,” said Neal, a 63-year-old former newspaperman and late-life back-to-the-lander who, with his wife Marilyn, began his business, called simply The Turkey Farm, in 1986.

Unlike their less fortunate brethren who spend their short lives crowded in huge barns, Neal’s birds have plenty of room to roam and socialize. The result, Neal said, is a happier turkey that does not require stress-reducing antibiotics given to most birds in their feed.

Neal said the diet of premium feed he buys from Canada helps produce a tastier, more tender turkey, one that can command a price three or four times as high as the ones lining supermarket freezers.

Free-range turkeys make up only a small percentage of the nation’s overall production of nearly 270 million birds, according to the National Turkey Federation, which had no figures on how many of the more than 6,000 turkey farms are free-range.

“It’s a niche market, specifically producing turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Sherrie Rosenblatt, the federation’s public relations director. “Some consumers prefer to know that their turkey had the ability to ‘roam free.”‘

As for taste, said Rosenblatt, “it’s all personal preference.” She detects no difference.

Neal sells his whole turkeys for $2.25 a pound, a 20-cent increase; the stores he supplies charge even more.

That might seem to be a hard sell at a time when supermarkets have been featuring Thanksgiving turkeys for as little as 48 cents a pound, showcasing them as loss leaders to lure customers who buy all the trimmings. But Neal manages to find takers for his birds year after year.

“I’m going to charge you at least three times what the Shop ‘n’ Save charges you, and I’m going to sell out and they’re not,” he said.

Neal sells a good share of his production through health food stores, noting that their customers are less likely to gasp at the birds’ price tags.

“For some people there is sticker shock,” said Lois Porta of Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough, where Neal’s turkeys go for $2.89 a pound. “But honestly, if they try it once, they taste the value in it and they do come back. We sell out; there’s more demand than we can supply.”

Neal also sells at farmers’ markets and delivers to drop-off points a few days before Thanksgiving to fulfill phone and Internet orders.

The Turkey Farm offers a community-supported agriculture program that enables customers to help out by supplying operating capital or labor. Those who invest $100 or more receive turkey worth that amount plus interest ranging from 6 to 20 percent. Work sharers who help with tasks ranging from light repairs and fencing to packaging and cleanup receive turkey in return.

Neal’s output includes turkey parts and turkey pies which are prepared by his wife. The Turkey Farm also is a popular attraction at the annual Fryeburg Fair, where Neal, his wife and two helpers serve up thousands of turkey dinners over a hectic eight-day run in October.

Neal, who raised five flocks this year, gets his birds from West Virginia. They arrive by air in Bangor the day after they hatch, and they spend their first three to eight weeks in the brooder house until they grow enough feathers to provide insulation. At the outset, when the turkeys have virtually no body mass, the building is warmed to 99 degrees by propane heaters.

At The Turkey Farm, it takes at least 17 weeks for hens and 19 weeks for toms to reach slaughter weight. Neal’s biggest expense, accounting for roughly half the overall cost, is feed. He relies on a mill in Quebec that delivers a corn and soybean mixture that also contains alfalfa, wheat and barley and is certified to be free of genetic engineering.

The recent rise in the value of the Canadian dollar raised the cost of Neal’s feed by more than 20 percent, which led to his first price increase in three years.

The birds are constant visitors to the farm’s 23 feeders, and Neal explains that turkeys eat 10 percent of their body weight each day. “They say a turkey that doesn’t eat for an hour is the equivalent of a human who doesn’t eat for 24 hours,” he said.

Turkeys have a reputation for stupidity, and Neal allows that a lot of the intelligence had been bred out of them as the industry aimed for ever-larger birds. He also suggests that a reason they may seem dumb is their farsightedness, which makes it hard for them to see and react to anything up close.

“There are no Nobel Prize winners here,” he said, “but they know what they have to know: Where’s the food, where’s the water, where’s the shelter, who’s a he, who’s a she.”

The pre-Thanksgiving slaughter is the busiest time at the Turkey Farm, and Neal likes to tell his turkeys what’s in store as the day of doom draws near.

“Before I kill them, I usually talk to them, let them know that their time has come,” he said, while expressing doubts that many of them understand English.

On the Net:

Neal’s Web site

AP-ES-11-15-03 1150EST

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