Submitted by Guest Blogger, Assistant Vineyard Manager John Pierini
I’ve always been passionate about the land and wildlife. I pursued a degree in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and have been at J. Lohr for 3 ½ years. Now, as assistant vineyard manager, I have the good fortune of spending my days in the vineyards and seeing what each new vintage brings.
John and his fiancée Caitlyn, holding two of the heritage turkeys they raised this year
This love for nature extends to my personal life as well. I have lived on a 15-acre vineyard for six years now, but I had never embraced the reality of homesteading until my fiancée, Caitlyn, gave me the helping hands and motivation I needed to make it work. Two years ago we started out with 6 layer chickens and a small garden. We now have turkeys, 20 chickens, and a quarter-acre garden.
Our 2011 Thanksgiving Day celebration was a major turning point for us. We were hosting my family from Orange County and wanted to make it a special occasion for them. We thought that since my mom is very health conscious, we should find a locally grown free-ranged organic turkey. We researched local farms and came across someone selling heritage turkeys. We both love to hunt for wild game and we knew that heritage turkeys are the closest breeds you can find to wild turkeys. As we did more research we realized that we wanted to select a heritage turkey not only for the flavor but because we were also impressed with the way they are typically raised. They are the oldest breeds still in existence; dating back to before turkeys were bred for large breasts and small wings. They are also slow growing and are able to reproduce naturally, unlike commercial broad-breasted turkeys.
We placed an order a few weeks in advance for an 18 lb. bird. It was the largest that we could find. When we picked it up, we were shocked by the hefty price tag. We went into a state of disbelief and panic for spending a small fortune on what we thought was a relatively small turkey. We reluctantly paid the bill. But then our disbelief and silence led to ideas, which led to raising our own heritage turkeys for the next Thanksgiving.
The next year we bought three heritage turkeys at a nominal price. We let the turkeys free range around our land and coexist with the chickens. What a lesson! These birds turned out to be pretty wild. They slept in trees, woke us up with their chirping and occupied all of the space in the chicken coop. We barely made it through the year and were relieved when it came time to finally process them for Thanksgiving 2012. We were a little overwhelmed processing for the first time, but with some hard work and crash course instructional videos via YouTube, we completed our first venture in delicious homegrown heritage turkeys that weighed between 8-12 lbs.
In 2013 we decided have an area for “turkeys-only” and supplement their diet with organic, non-GMO feed. We also raised our flock size to 14 birds based on the great response from 2012. While it all sounds like it was for practical reasons, I’ll also admit that it was mostly because Caitlyn wanted more birds. We were hooked.
Our new approach turned out to be much easier to control them, but much more costly in feed. I can fully understand now why they sell for $10/lb. These birds can eat! During the turkey harvest this year, we were pleasantly surprised when we got an average weight of 17 lbs. for the toms (males) and 9 lbs. for the hens. From April to November we diligently raised them. It can be a little sad to see them go, but we are confident that they lived good lives and that we are truly happy with where our food is coming from.
I am proud to say that we ended up selling all of the birds that we raised in 2013, minus two for Caitlyn and me, as well as one we are holding onto for Christmas. I actually even sold turkeys to J. Lohr’s President and COO Jeff Meier and J. Lohr’s Sustainability Coordinator Kathryn Teissier du Cros. Jeff has even shared a tasty recipe that he used for his Thanksgiving feast.
Raising these guys is tough work, but we could never go back to buying a commercial turkey. Gobble-gobble!
Jeff Meier’s Brine Recipe:
Jeff received his free range heritage turkey in San Jose the day before Thanksgiving – delivered from Paso Robles with care by VP Sales Service, Cindy Paup.
Jeff didn’t want to wait until getting home to get his turkey in its brine. He quickly ran out to the corner grocery mart and picked-up the key ingredients he needed.
Jeff explained that the salt in the brine doesn’t make the turkey taste salty, but actually helps keep the lean meat moist. The salt enters into the muscle of the turkey and the water follows. Without a brine, the turkey will dry out during the 10 hours he expects it to spend in his smoker.
1) Jeff started with a 5 gallon bucket – large enough for his 17 lb. turkey. He lined the bucket with two plastic bags.
2) A bag of brown sugar
3) A container of salt (and a bit of Kosher salt too)
4) Black peppercorn (whole, not ground)
5) A few bay leaves
6) A bottle of whiskey (he selected a honey flavored one)
7) Added water and Mixed all the ingredients well.
8) He drained any remaining fluids out from the turkey
9) Then put it breast-side down (that’s the part his guests eat and he wanted it to be as flavorful as possible!)