Talking turkey: ‘To keep ‘em alive, you gotta eat ‘em’
JOHN HARNOIS COURTESY PHOTO
Nic Harnois holds a heritage turkey as conventional turkeys look on.
The turkeys were loose.
Here John Harnois was, putting new straw down inside one of the turkey cages, when 30 of his 33 heritage turkeys decided it was time for a November trot.
But instead of panicking, he walked over to the flock slowly, looked around and gobbled.
And all of them, all at once, gobbled right back.
Harnois, 55, of Whitmore Lake, runs Harnois Farm with all sorts of animals, including various species of chickens, ducks, geese and yes, turkeys, both conventional and heritage.
While gobbling with the heritage Narraganset breed, Harnois explained the biggest difference between them and his conventional Broad-Breasted White breed — almost all of the Broad-Breasted Whites die virgins.
“They don’t have the broad breast, so they can do the deed,” said Harnois of the heritage turkeys. He pointed to a bare spot on the back of one of the hens.
“See that? She gets it a lot. She’s slow,” he said.
Broad-Breasted Whites and other conventional turkeys were bred from American wild turkeys to grow fast and grow big. So big, in fact, that the only way they’re reproduced today is through artificial insemination. Their breasts are simply too big to, well, get it on.
Harnois’ conventional turkeys, and most conventional turkeys, for that matter, not only die chaste but also young. When Thanksgiving Day rolls around, they will be processed, dressed and stuffed at the tender age of four months.
The heritage turkeys, on the other hand, will be eight months old by the time they find their way off the farm and onto a dinner table.
Harnois has a few hundred conventional turkeys this year compared to only a few dozen heritage turkeys. He says he likes raising both kinds, but prefers to eat the heritage breed. These turkeys come with more dark meat, and are generally more flavorful than their conventional cousin.
“The only complaint I’ve ever had was that my turkeys were too moist and too flavorful,” laughed Harnois. “She was expecting a dry-tasting Butterball, and that’s not what I raise.”
Harnois went on gobbling with the turkeys as he explained the way his business works. There wasn’t any hurry to get the turkeys back in the cage.
“I might as well just hang out here and wait. I won’t be able to get them back in the cage until my business partner gets home from school,” he said.
His business partner is his 13-year-old son, Nic Harnois. And Nic’s partnership isn’t just an endearing title; both of their names are listed on the Harnois Farm business cards.
JOHN HARNOIS COURTESY PHOTO
Most of John and Nic Harnois’ flock of Broad-Breasted White conventional turkeys are too young to gobble by the time they’re processed.
Just then, Nic came walking past the chicken coop, introduced himself and got to herding the flock back into their cage.
“Hear what he says to them? He’s telling them, ‘Bed-bed.’ They think it’s time to go to sleep,” John whispered.
Nic was able to herd most of the turkeys back into the cage, but one hen kept bounding around. After a few minutes of what was literally a domestic turkey chase, Nic cornered the hen and wrestled her a bit before cradling her in his arms.
“The turkeys are such a pain,” said John. “Getting them in the coop is like pushing wet string.”
Nic explained that when night falls, the two work as a team to get all of the turkeys in their coops to sleep. For the conventional turkeys, they have to split the flock in half, and herd one half in at a time.
“You’ll get the first ones in, and then by the time you come back (to the other half), the other ones are asleep,” he said.
The market for heritage turkeys is raised mostly by word-of-mouth, according to Harnois. Most heritage-seekers love the taste, but they’re also interested in eating sustainably. By consuming them, buyers help these native breeds from dying out.
“To keep ’em alive, you gotta eat ’em,” said Harnois.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as all that. Harnois Farm is one of the only farms in Washtenaw County with heritage turkeys, and they go for $10 a pound versus the $3 or $4 a pound that his conventional turkeys go for. They process food much more efficiently, resulting in turkeys that are only six to 15 pounds after eight months, versus the 15-25 pound conventional turkeys at four months. That means they eat more and need housing for longer — and turkeys don’t pay rent.
Despite their expenses, all of John’s heritage turkeys were spoken for before the month of November even began. Last year, though, was a different story. Harnois Farm was left with 15 unsold heritage turkeys, a huge blow to the two-man farm.
“Last year, I made $5,000 — and lived on it,” said John. “It’s a struggle. Payday is Thanksgiving.”
To lessen the burden, John does odd jobs, some carpentry, some painting. He’s also finishing a master’s degree in special education from Eastern Michigan University – his third graduate degree. He hopes that this will open up job opportunities for him outside the farm.
“I’m the best-educated painter in Michigan!” he joked.
John has had several special requests concerning his poultry, including one Muslim family that asked him to kill chickens for them in the traditional halal fashion. John declined at the time, but he still processes his own meat from time to time.
“Every few years, you need to process your own bird so you know what food is and remember where food comes from,” he said. “I don’t enjoy doing it, but if I separate myself from what I’m eating, I have no business raising these animals.”