Poultry paradise yields delicious pasture-raised meat
Poultry farmer David Glover of Tejas Heritage Farm mimics a gobble sound and like an army saluting, the dozens of gathered turkeys all raise their heads and gobble uniformly in response. Down the tree-lined driveway, the resident peacock struts unruffled by the cacophony of honks, quacks and cock-a-doodle-doos it sets off. As instantly as it erupts, the symphony of poultry sounds quiets down again. Sprawling over 20 acres of pasture and woodlands amidst the lush foliage of the Sam Houston National Forest, Tejas Heritage Farm is committed to raising heritage breed poultry, including turkey, goose, duck, guinea fowl and chicken, as well as rabbit.
This fall, Auburns make up the majority of the turkeys. It is a domestic breed developed in the early 1800s on the East Coast. Other heritage turkeys include Red Bourbons, Black Spanish and slender grey Slates. “All of them have very subtle different flavors but to me the Slates are some of the nicest. Plus, they pluck very well,” says Glover. Dark feathers can leave a stain because of the natural ink in the quill, one reason why most commercial turkeys are bred to have white feathers. “No one can taste it but unless you’re educated, you think the bird is blemished and therefore not satisfactory.”
Free to forage around the property, their pasture diet of wild berries, flowers and insects is supplemented with certified organic feed from Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill near Austin, as well as whole wheat sprouted on the farm itself.
The turkeys’ lifestyle here is as close to that of their wild counterparts as it can be, from the food they eat to flying up a tree, or mating—much unlike the factory-farm selectively bred white turkey whose breasts are so heavy it can no longer run or even reproduce naturally.
Tejas Heritage Farm started out as a plantation for exotic plants and wildlife but today the few reminders are the many varieties of bamboo—some of which produce edible shoots in season—and three monkeys in a huge cage that would do a zoo proud. “I used to have loads of ginger plants but the geese ate it all,” Glover says. Like sheep and cows, geese convert grass into meat, which makes it a very flavorful bird. They are grass eaters, and very partial to weeds. “Back in the 18th and 19th century, they were popular as weeders. You can even train them from birth: If you feed a young gosling a certain weed, that’s what they’ll fixate on.”
With a hiss, body lowered and neck stretched, one of the geese in the white and grey gaggle attempts a warning charge: We are too close. Glover is smiling: “Aren’t they beautiful? See, the males have extremely little grey feathering, and it is mainly on their wings, and the females only have white feathering on their faces. They should be double lobed—which mine are. They are just right,” he says, his voice swollen with pride of his pure Pilgrim geese. Pilgrim goose is a heritage breed that is critically endangered. The five couples that forage freely on the secluded, wooded pastures with grasses and newly planted winter rye and winter wheat are blissfully ignorant of that fact. The gaggle waddles as if the world is theirs. And here on this farm, it is.
Until the gaggle grows stronger in numbers, none of them is even considered for butchering. If it came to that, however, the fact that Pilgrims are dimorphic (or auto-sexing) makes it easier to maintain the right male-female ratio. It is a unique feature among the usually monomorphic geese: Pilgrim males are white and females are grey.
Relatively quiet, as if he’s a mere spectator to the fuss the turkeys and geese stir up, the big white duck with the red wart-like coloring on his face suddenly glances when we turn and start to talk about him. It is a White Muscovy duck, much appreciated for its large, deep red, flavorful breasts. One breast is large enough to feed two or three people, and the meat quality is often likened to sirloin steak. Until they end up in someone’s smoker or roasting pan, these ducks lead a leisurely life and swim in the pond, waddle around, snooze in the shade of a tree, mingle with the turkeys and—like all poultry here— eat a healthy pasture diet.
As much as the property is paradise for poultry, it is also where their lives end: in the butcher house on site. All meat poultry is butchered by hand, one by one, in the most humane and least stressful manner. Caught in the morning, the birds destined for slaughter are brought to the butcher house where they are put—head first—in a butcher cone and allowed to calm down. Then, with a razor-sharp knife their two main arteries are slashed and they bleed out within minutes.
Poultry on this farm doesn’t go through any of the stress of transportation and mass slaughter. These birds are not pushed through automated plucking machines by the dozens. There are no feces splashed onto them by other birds during the large-scale, machine-operated slaughter process. With each bird butchered individually and manually, control of the butchering is optimal. After the birds are plucked and cleaned, they are put in a sterile ice bath for a day and a half. It takes care of the rigor mortis—the stiffening of muscles that toughens the meat unless it rests well.
In addition to whole birds the farm prepares chili, sausages and smoked meat. Wild boar trapped on the property is butchered and its meat is used to make chili, sausages and pulled pork. All of their products—various birds (including smoked), rabbits, cuts of wild boar, prepared foods, pre-packed innards and fresh eggs—they bring to the market every week on Saturdays, a 50-mile journey each way for the poultry farmers.
“We have no other source of income. This is it. Whatever comes from this property is our sole income. And it is frequently scary. You wonder how you’re gonna pay your insurance. But it is what we chose to do, and we do it whole-heartedly.”
Tejas Heritage Farm is a Certified Naturally Grown
farm. Find David Glover at the market on Saturday (Urban Harvest Eastside market, 8am–noon). Cheri Glover can be found at the Grogan’s Mill Farmers Market in The Woodlands (Saturday, 8am–noon). For more information, check out TejasHeritageFarm.com
With extremely limited availability, most heritage turkey sell out well before the holidays. You could be in luck. Or you could try and get goose, duck, rabbit or even wild boar for your festive meal. Call and find out what they have!
Tejas Heritage Farm: 281-961-4777 (David) or 281-961-3034 (Cheri)
Oaks of Mamre Farm operates a 25-acre heritage poultry family farm just northeast of Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston via US Highway 290. Oaks of Mamre Farm also raises heritage breed turkey. They are currently not selling at any farmers markets, but offer pickup at the farm - 27959 Mellman Rd., Hempstead, 979-826-9812
Other places to look for free-range, organic turkey, goose or duck include Whole Foods Markets and Central Market.
For a full list of farmers markets in the Houston area, check EdibleHouston.com.