The field is alive with turkeys. A 250-strong flock of toms (males) and hens (females) cheep-chirp as they peck at tiny insects and the tangle of greenery underfoot, moving between tree shade and swathes of sunshine. They have brown feathers outlined in white, divided by white chevrons; gawky pink necks; beady black eyes twinkling in the late September mid-morning sun; and tiny horns protruding from their beaks — reminders of their dinosaur ancestry. When people come near, they’re often more curious than afraid.
These are Broad Breasted Bronzes, first bred in the 18th century by crossing wild American turkeys with European imports. Thanks to their flavorful meat and generous sizing — they can reach 4 feet in length with a 6-foot wingspan; males can weigh close to 40 pounds — they became a popular choice for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Unfortunately, they fell out of favor with large commercial producers because their dark pin feathers make them more difficult to process.
The extra work doesn’t deter the team here at Ayrshire Farm, an 800-acre farm started by Cisco co-founder and philanthropist Sandy Lerner. It’s located in the heart of Loudoun County: north of Marshall and Warrenton, in between the snaking slither of the Shenandoah River and Middleburg, and just south of Mount Weather, FEMA’s underground command bunker. Farm manager Chris Damewood, a 14-year veteran of the operation, oversees the raising of certified organic and humane poultry, along with heritage cattle, Shire horses and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs.
“I learn something new every single day,” he says. “It’s never dull out here.”
To show off one of the turkeys, Damewood scoops up a passing hen and cradles it against his belly. It promptly shits on his faded navy blue Carhartt sweatshirt. He doesn’t even notice. You know you’re a true farmer when…
Turkey chicks arrive at Ayrshire when they’re just a day old. Because younglings are highly sensitive to temperature fluctuations, they spend the first three weeks in heated brooder sheds. Then they’re moved to larger buildings, and eventually outdoors to a few acres of pasture ringed by a highly charged electric fence to help protect them from raccoons, coyotes, bobcats and other predators. Generally, the turkeys are free to roam the field as they please, whether they want to flutter up into a tree or sit in one of the mobile, open-faced roosting houses.
This inquisitive gaggle of Broad Breasted Bronzes are an integral part of the farm’s holistic approach. They eat weeds and insects (as well as vegetable-based feed), so no herbicides or pesticides are required. As they break up dried cow manure from the field’s previous occupants, on the hunt for insects, they help fertilize the land, and the birds naturally fertilize themselves every time they go to the bathroom anywhere other than Damewood’s Carhartt sweatshirt. Next year, a new batch of turkeys will be on a different field. This one, invigorated by the birds, will be used to graze cattle.
The most difficult part of raising these magnificent creatures is timing. Ideally, they fatten up at the farm for the 16 weeks before Thanksgiving. Procure birds too late, they won’t be plump enough to be an attractive option for a centerpiece dish. Get the hatchlings too early, by the time Thanksgiving arrives they’ll be too big and won’t fit in most ovens. One such bird, a massive Spanish Black, the model for this story’s photo shoot, lingers at Ayrshire because it was too big to be worthwhile killing (#toofattodie). In true farmer fashion — the bird is a product raised to be slaughtered and sold — Damewood didn’t name it and insists he’s not a pet.
“He’s a friend,” he allows.
The turkeys are killed five days before Thanksgiving. Once they’re dressed — aka defeathered, gutted and their heads, neck and feet removed — hens will weigh 14-16 pounds, while the toms will clock in around 18 pounds. Unlike most grocery store turkeys, these Broad Breasted Bronzes are never frozen and will command $12 a pound; the average butterball sells for $1 a pound.
They’re only available for sale at the farm or through their website. For Damewood, it’s gratifying work.
“I just love to hear the rave reviews from first-time buyers who tell us, ‘I never thought a turkey could taste this good.’”
Diners who don’t want to invest in a full bird can sample them year-round in nearby Upperville at the farm’s sister spot, Hunter’s Head Tavern, an English-style gastropub housed in an 18th-century public house. To honor the birds I spent the morning learning about, I stop in for lunch with the District Fray team after our visit to Ayrshire.
Naturally, I order the smoked turkey club gussied up with cranberry sauce, slivers of Granny Smith apples, Gruyere and crunchy fried onions. The meat is next-level tender and juicy with a pleasing wild gaminess that hints at flavors savored at the earliest Thanksgivings. The families who have these birds on their holiday tables will be enjoying a rare celebration indeed.
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