Heritage turkey talk with John Harnois

In my Farm to Fork series, I visit local farms and share what I learn. As I mentioned in my overview of Harnois Farms, John Harnois raises heirloom Narrangansett turkeys. He raises them, because, as he so succinctly put it, “You gotta eat ‘em to keep ‘em alive. If you don’t eat ‘em the genetics are going to be gone.” As signs abound everywhere for ordering Thanksgiving turkeys, a festival saluting their North American provenance, the time feels ripe to delve into the world of our gobbling domestic fowl.

Borden - Head of a Narrangansett TurkeyThe head of a Narrangansett hen held by John Harnois. The bulbous bumps called caruncles are clearly evident.

In addition to the Narrangansetts, Harnois raises one of the two strains of the Broad Breasted Whites, the Nicholas strain. All Harnois poultry is raised in a free range, hormone free, antibiotic free environment. According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation (yes, there is one), 99.99% of what is sold in supermarkets is the Broad Breasted White variety. Harnois expressed concern about this market dominance. “There are only a couple of strains out there [of the Broad Breasted]. That’s a problem. And if there are only two strains of these what is going to happen when something affects them?”

Borden - Narrangansett Turkeys

If something happens, consumers will have a choice of eating beans & rice or paying three times as much for a turkey.

Broad Breasted Whites are cheaper to raise than the 8 breeds of heritage turkey listed on the American Poultry Association’s turkey Standard of Perfection for recognized breeds (Slate, White Holland, Bronze, and Narrangansett have been on the list since 1874). Bred for a fast turnaround on your initial investment of around $3.50 per poult, the birds have white feathers (which means if the developing pin feathers release pigment when plucked the skin is not stained), and grow to maturity in around 20 weeks.

Raising Narrangansetts to keep alive the diversity of the turkey stock is, “just expensive all the way around,” shared Harnois. “Instead of having them for 4 months you have them for 8 months and they cost four times as much for a one day old poult. They cost the same to get them processed. They only weight between 6 and 16 pounds and these guys [the Broad Breasted Whites] weight between 16 and 24 pounds. And their feed to muscle mass conversion ratio is very low. They are very inefficient to raise.”

Inefficient they may be, but it is clear that Harnois enjoys every moment of his time with his turkeys. Cradling one against his body he strokes the head as he describes the anatomy of the bird.

A practiced yodeling gobble from Harnois elicited a chorus of gobbling from the Broad Breasted Whites in return. The Narrangansetts then responded to the Whites, for a call and response of back and forth calls between the birds.

Proponents of the “eat ‘em to keep ‘em alive” camp extol the flavor of the heritage breeds, especially the dark meat. Harnois and Morgan & York sell their heritage turkeys for $10/pound - and are sold out. There is rapidly diminishing availability through the Heritage Foods website (www.heritagefoodsusa.com). Whole Foods is not selling heritage breeds this year because there was not enough demand last year.

John Harnois can be reached at 734-645-0300 or harnoishappyhens@gmail.com.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Harnois Farms: our local poultry farmer working within the global world of commodities

In my Farm to Fork series, I visit local farms and share what I learn. John Harnois, of Harnois Farms, has been raising free range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free poultry for more than 15 years. Roosters crow, turkeys gobble, ducklings peep and geese cackle - a chorus of sound and movement welcome you to his farm.

Harnois began his poultry farm in the spring of 1994.

“It has to do with knowing where your food is coming from," he said. "I wanted to know what I was eating.”

Harnois continued, “I was a city kid and so I started with chickens because chickens are cheaper. If you lose a steer, that is a big investment, but if you lose a chicken…I talked to people. I went out to visit farmers. I read books.”

Borden - John Harnois in front of his hens

As we walked around the farm, Harnois spoke easily and with knowledge about his charges, including the catch-22 implicit when raising heritage Narragansett turkeys: “You gotta eat ‘em to keep ‘em alive.”

Or an assessment of the barnyard pecking order: “Ducks are insane - that is the way they are. And they are slobs. Geese are the snobs of the barnyard, and ducks are the slobs.”

Or describing the evolution of a chicken, as he gestures to a bird with a red cape and a blue-green breast: “That’s the original chicken. All breeds of chicken come from the Red Junglefowl of India. And in India they just call them fowl.”

Harnois looked fondly at his birds, pecking and preening in the sun, and ruminated on his business model. “I have been selling a lot of meat chickens. If I can get my prices down, I can do a lot more wholesale. I want to see if I can do that.”

He paused and continued, “people want my eggs, they love my eggs. I could sell double my egg production, but I don’t have anywhere to put them - same with meat chickens. Perhaps I could figure out how to do meat chickens this winter, because no one else can do them here. Because you have to keep it at 100 degrees, you know, when they are little guys and they don’t have feathers. So it is expensive.”

Harnois two main expenses are the premium prices he pays for heritage breeds - “I think that heritage, these heirloom varieties that I have, lay a more flavorful egg” - and the food he feeds them.

All Harnois poultry - the ducks, the chickens, the laying hens, the turkeys, the geese - eat the same feed, the recipe for which he tracked down from a mill that went out of business. Harnois feels the lauded flavor of his eggs and meat is courtesy of this unique blend of grains and beans - a feed that is rapidly becoming more expensive.

“Feed just went up so much so that when I called in an order on Monday the guy called me back and said, 'Just so you know, soybeans went over $11 a bushel, and I’m telling you because you need to price your eggs accordingly.'”

Harnois continued with a quiet voice, “So at market yesterday, that was what everyone who had eggs was talking about. I think corn is going up [too].”

When we spoke Oct. 14, the price of soybean futures was $11 a barrel. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported the corn and soybean markets were fueled by a USDA report, “that issued sharper-than-expected reductions in estimates for corn and soybean crops and ending stocks for next year, while also saying demand for the commodities remains strong.”

Some argue the demand for U.S. soy is due to traders purchasing domestic soy to sell on the more lucrative Chinese markets. “China will increase imports by 23 percent this year, partly to feed hogs as pork consumption rises,” reported Bloomberg.

On Nov. 2, Bloomberg reported that due to a high rainfall in South America, the price for soybeans “leveled off” at $12.34 a bushel and $5.9075 for corn. According to USDA data, compared with last year, the price of soybeans this year has increased by 26 percent (from $9.76) and corn by 49 percent (from $3.95).

As Harnois shared, “It is grand if you’re a cash crop farmer because they’ll get more, but then their inputs are going to go up, too - if more people start growing corn then it means that they’re gonna do less rotation of crops - that is not a good thing.”

At the end of the day, this global marketplace is setting the price of feed for the ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys that scratch, peck, preen and gobble on Harnois farm. As the price of feed rises, so does the price of eggs and meat - as Thomas Friedman says, it is a flat world.

John Harnois attends the Ann Arbor Farmers Market which will give you your chance to talk to him about duck eggs, chicken eggs, succulent chicken, tender turkeys, etc. His chicken eggs are sold at the People’s Food Co-op and his meat and eggs are sold at Arbor Farms Market. Café Zola sources 90 dozen Harnois eggs a week, and Grange Kitchen & Bar often sources meat from his birds.

John Harnois can be reached at 734-645-0300 or harnoishappyhens@gmail.com.

Here is the article on annarbor.com