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Pasture-raised turkeys vs. conventional turkeys: the pros and cons

Side Hill Farmers Meat & Market's Facebook page.
An example of the pasture-raised turkeys they sell at Side Hill Farmers Meat & Market.

At tables across the country, Americans will be gathering around to eat turkey and the demand for local, pasture-raised turkeys is growing. The more expensive, small farm birds and the conventional turkeys from large farms both have their benefits and disadvantages.

At Side Hill Farmers Meat & Market in Manlius, Greg Rhoad, the managing chef, said 120 fresh, pasture-raised turkeys from two small Amish farms in Cazenovia have sold out. They stopped taking orders last week.

“We can guarantee we know what farms they come from," Rhoad said. "When they were slaughtered, who they were raised by and how they were raised and that’s as important as anything else.”

Rhoad said the meat tastes more flavorful and retains more moisture than a conventional turkey.

Steve Ammerman, from the New York Farm Bureau, says when you buy from local farmers the money stays in the community but the turkey might come at a higher price.

“There are more costs that go into raising a bird like that," Ammerman said. "That’s why they tend to be more expensive, but still there’s choice out there for people.

A conventional turkey will sell at or below $1.60 a pound while Side Hill sells their pasture-raised birds at $4.50 a pound.

Food prices are up slightly this Thanksgiving according to a recent survey by the New York State Farm Bureau. Prices for 12 common Thanksgiving items were up by about three percent compared to last year. Ammerman said about $52 can feed a family with 10 people for Thanksgiving dinner.

Robert Beckstead, an associate professor in the department of poultry science at the University of Georgia, said there are risks to consider when buying turkeys from small farms. 

“Companies that produce a lot of birds are required to have USDA inspections," Beckstead said. "If you buy a turkey from a neighbor down the street and he processes it for you, then you inherently have taken that risk on.”

Beckstead said the avian influenza that killed a number of turkeys this year across the country is transmitted by ducks and geese coming in contact with turkeys roaming outside. He also said turkeys raised indoors are also susceptible to certain types of diseases. Regardless of what kind of turkey is purchased, Beckstead said to make sure it’s cooked properly. That’s to a temperature of 180 degrees in the thigh and 165 degrees in the breast to kill any bacteria.