Arkansas farmer's turkeys free, but pricey

Published 24 November 2017

PERRYVILLE -- Katie Short can't imagine small-scale farming without the Internet.

Unlike most farmers, Short, 34, of Farm Girl Meats, is bound by her online shareholders who pay a monthly fee for bundles of bacon, sausage, chicken and hams.

And this year they wanted turkey.

In spite of drastic price differences between free-range turkeys and industry toms, Short conducted her own science experiment.

"We asked, what happens when you let them be turkeys?" she said.

Instead of raising turkeys in floorless coops, or industry warehouses, her 50-bird flock would roam wild with the rest of her animals.

"Now we know what that outer limit is."

Farm Girl Meats in Perryville has sold meat for seven years from animals raised on free-range pasture to customers and restaurants in central Arkansas.

Just north of the Fourche Lafave River, Short's 123-acre farm is home to cows, pigs, chickens, mules and turkeys. This season she sold her heritage bronze-breasted turkeys for $7 per pound, or roughly $100 per bird.

That's cheaper than a 16-18-pound Williams Sonoma free-range turkey priced online Wednesday at $159.95.

However, most Whole Foods stores in the South have free-range turkeys -- not certified organic -- that cost $3-$4 per pound, or about $70 per bird. They're even cheaper with an Amazon coupon.

Still, Short said her 22-week-old turkeys met a demand that can't be filled at the grocery store.

"I don't think the price is the deciding factor," Short said. "I think [customers] want a centerpiece for the family table that really highlights the culinary and community experience of the holiday."

A nationwide production glut sank retail turkey prices even further this season. In 2015, the worst-ever U.S. bird-flu outbreak killed millions of chickens and turkeys. Growers overcompensated for their losses, which led to record low prices for commercial toms this Thanksgiving.

Oddly, at a time when turkey prices typically peak, costs have held below average, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

With a small batch of turkeys and strong consumer demand for local, ethically sourced meats, Short said she didn't consider national market conditions before starting her turkey project.

Originally from California, the first-generation farmer rooted herself in Arkansas through Heifer International. After managing livestock a little over a year, she began her own 30-acre farm in 2010.

Two years later, Short raised her first flock of turkeys in what she calls "schooners," or floorless poultry coops. Pasture-raised turkey growers would say the benefit of these houses is that they allow natural light in and they're movable, which is ideal for rotational grazing and manure placement.

After that project "I vowed never to do it again," she said. "Five years later people were begging for turkeys."

While raising turkeys free-range this time didn't compromise the birds' health as much as pasture-raised and commercial techniques, Short said she won't do the same thing next year: The big birds are too difficult to corral.

Short said she'd like to grow more turkey flocks for spring and fall holidays, expand her hog and beef production, and double her chicken supply for 2018.

On average, Short sells 2,000 pounds of pork, beef, and chicken every month, while supplies last.

Short's meats can be found year-round at the Hillcrest farmers market and at restaurants such as The Root Cafe and K Bird.

Business on 11/23/2017