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Feeding the Demand for Humanely Raised Turkeys

Jim Richardson's Thanksgiving birds

For Jim Richardson, retirement living isn't a walk in the park, especially around Thanksgiving. The veterinarian-turned-turkey farmer has more business than he can handle when it's time to meet the demand for his sought-after, humanely raised holiday birds.

Last year, Richardson, 62, sold the first turkeys from his 200-acre farm in Rockdale, Texas, about an hour northeast of Austin. He started with 100 birds, a modest number that would allow him to feel out the market, and sold them all, much to his surprise. So this June he bought 400 young turkeys, known as poults, to raise to maturity in time for Thanksgiving.

But demand once again overwhelmed his supply. By Nov. 1, he had sold all the birds, most for $4 per pound — 16 times more than the turkey deals at some local grocery stores. He even sold out of the $8-a-pound Bourbon Reds, a heritage breed — "They're more like wild turkeys, although they're not wild" — leaving customers from miles around clamoring for more.

"I hate to turn down so many," he says of the people who have inundated his e-mail and voicemail with requests for turkeys, in spite of the big "sold out" banner on the Richardson Farms website.

From trees to turkeys

Although Richardson is relatively new to raising turkeys, farming has been in his blood for years. He grew crops like watermelons and tomatoes on leased land during his 38-year career as a veterinarian in Texas. In 2001, he and his wife, Kay, a registered nurse, purchased the farm as a retirement project. "We are physically working harder now than we did when we were actually working," Kay says.

The couple started their new adventure by growing trees, planting more than 4,000 live oak saplings that they shepherded to maturity. They sell trees each winter to landscape contractors, which creates some financial stability. They have added cattle and hogs, and sell their beef and pork at farmers' markets, to restaurants, and through a local organic grocery delivery service. Their son, Lance, and his family have joined them in raising laying hens and broiler chickens. Adding turkeys to their offerings was the logical next step.

The Richardsons' approach to meat and poultry production is unusual in the United States — and it's what makes people value his product so highly. They prioritize the animals' health and well-being, and their operation reflects that, especially when it comes to turkeys. Having dedicated his life to caring for animals, Richardson says he finds their slaughter unsettling. "That's the one bad part of it," he says. "They have a wonderful life, but they do give their life for us."

Customers want local foods

On a bright and gusty November day, the birds peck around in the grass and soil adjacent to a small barn. When people approach, their clucking and chattering pick up, making a surprisingly melodious sound.

"Ours is a small flock that's free-range, out on pasture," says Richardson, which contrasts sharply with the close confinement and caging practiced by the majority of U.S. turkey producers. "They're cared for much more compassionately," he says of his flock.

Richardson says his customers value compassionate husbandry — and knowing where their food comes from. "They've watched the movies Fresh and Food, Inc.," he says, "and they're learning about local foods."

Recent food safety concerns have also encouraged people to seek food directly from the farm. "Every time there's a food scare with a massive recall of a product, it helps our business because we're small and the people know where the product came from," he says. "The supply chain is short."

The farm is thriving and Richardson has his sights set to keep it growing. In 2011, he plans to double this year's investment in turkeys and raise 800 of them in time for next Thanksgiving.

"This is what I want to do," he says. "This is my passion."

Beth Goulart is a writer in Austin, Texas.

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