Kentwood farmer raising 150 birds for local Thanksgiving tables
KENTWOOD — It started with two pigs, bought from a guy down the street, and 65 rolling, wildflower-studded acres near Kentwood.
Now, Galen Iverstine, 26, has 35 head of cattle, nearly 1,000 chickens, considerably more than two pigs and 150 turkeys, all watched over by him and a 9-month-old Great Pyrenees named Rooster.
Vacations? What vacations?
“You don’t,” Iverstine said. “You don’t vacation.”
Sometimes, he said, when he goes out of town, he calls on his dad or friends to help, but he tries to make it a rare occasion.
Iverstine, who is just shy of a degree in political science from LSU, came across some literature about agriculture and the environment. The more he read, the more he thought he could be a farmer.
“I’ve never been shy of hard work,” he said.
The Central native bought the land near Kentwood, then moved to New Hampshire to work on a farm there for two years before returning to Louisiana.
He got the pigs first, then turned his eye toward poultry. But it turns out poultry like short grass. He could either mow regularly or get a grazing animal. Enter the cows, which are 100 percent grass-fed.
This time of year, though, the turkeys are the stars of his farm.
Iverstine raised about 150 turkeys this year for south Louisiana Thanksgiving tables — about three times what he raised last year — and they’ll sell for $4 per pound.
“We raised this many on a step of faith,” he said. He’s been taking pre-orders at his booth at the Red Stick Farmers Market in downtown Baton Rouge for the last couple of weeks and plans a harvest festival for folks to come pick up their dressed bird.
While his turkeys are the same breed as the ones you get in grocery stores, they live a slightly different life. For one, they’re not raised in cages but share fields with Iverstine’s cows, chickens and pigs.
“We actually kind of use them as our pasture sanitizers and fertilizers,” he said, using the turkeys to eat the worms and flies that plague the cattle. The turkeys, in turn, lay down a layer of nitrogen-rich fertilizer that helps the fields recover from the cows’ grazing. Iverstine moves them to new ground every so often, just as he does his chickens. The fowls’ progress is evident in the fields in the circles and squares of ever-greener grass they leave behind.
The end product, Iverstine said, is somewhat different from what you’d get at the supermarket. For one, his turkeys get about a quarter of their diet from the fields, and that means the meat is going to be higher in omega fats, Iverstine said. Secondly, the meat is going to have a firmer texture because they get to run around.
“Our turkeys are athletes,” he said.
Iverstine also refuted the image of the turkeys as a stupid bird.
“Until they’re about seven weeks old, they only have one thing on their mind: Coming up with a new and creative way to die,” he said. “After that, they’re the strongest and smartest birds on the farm.”
As Iverstine approached the corral that held his turkeys and their two guard geese — the geese make a huge amount of noise when predators approach and discourage an attack — the turkeys sent up a chorus of whistles and gobbles to greet him. As he moved around the corral, the flock moved with him, hoping for feed. In addition to whatever they find in the fields, Iverstine feeds his omnivorous birds cracked corn, oats and the occasional table scraps.
At first, each turkey looked the same, lean birds with white feathers balanced on pale, scaly legs and enormous splayed feet. And, of course, those fleshy, pink heads. But when Iverstine whistled like a hen, the young males showed themselves, fluffing up their breasts and wings and showing what little they had of their tail feathers. Their beards, nearly invisible at first, were easy to spot once Iverstine pointed out the dark speck on the males’ necks that would eventually grow into a turkey trophy should Thanksgiving not be approaching rapidly.
Iverstine will process both the jakes, the term for young males, and the hens. The jakes grow a little faster, he said, and, therefore, account for the larger birds. He’s shooting for an 18-pound average, which are a little too big for the fryer, but work out well when roasted the traditional way, he said.