Fowl talk

Up a gravel dirt road, past two rusting tractors, we can hear turkeys talking. And John Harnois knows what they're saying — they gobble, and he gobbles back.See, the 52-year-old Harnois raises free-range fowl here on his farm in Whitmore Lake. They're spread out in small metal and wooden coops on 5.1 acres, on what would otherwise be Harnois' front lawn. There are chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys — today the birds are hungry, they're broody and they're chatty.

It's two weeks before Thanksgiving, and the turkeys are getting fat. In less than a week, these living, breathing creatures head off to be "processed" — going in as proud, strutting toms, feathers splayed, chests puffed — and coming out pink-skinned, plucked and packed into humble plastic bags, ready to be covered with foil and baked for hours at 450 degrees.

For now, Harnois, with chin tucked into his heavy black coat, boots spattered with mud, "talks" to 60 Narragansett turkeys. The birds raise their heads, open their beaks, and yak back. They strut about their pen as if they're shivering, ruffling feathers of black and brown.

Narragansetts' heads change color too, between red and blue, depending on their mood. On this blustery November day, they're all blue. It's as if they know what's coming.

Heritage farming

The white, broad-breasted turkey variety makes up nearly 100 percent of turkey meat sold. And heritage birds, including lesser-known varieties like Harnois' Narragansetts, are making a comeback. Narragansetts, you'll note, are the original Thanksgiving turkey. They descended from Eastern wild turkeys and domesticated colonial turkeys and were the foundation of the New England turkey industry. Today, they're popular for small-scale farming.

Heritage turkeys, says Nick Seccia, executive chef with the Henry Ford, "are a superior turkey." The heritage birds cost more and take more time to raise. For Harnois, who also has a flock of commercial white turkeys, Narragansetts cost at least three times more. ("Their feed-to-muscle-mass [ratio] is lower," Harnois says, "so they eat more for the same meat production.")

Harnois' white turkeys sell for $3.50-$4.50 per pound; the Narragansetts go for $8 to $10 per pound to Better Health Stores, Zingerman's Deli, the Henry Ford and individual buyers.

The turkey-man life

"I often wonder how I got where I am," the farmer says. Born in Flat Rock, Harnois moved to Detroit when he was 12. At 22, he moved to California where he "lived in my truck, next to some friends who lived in their van." He soon returned to Michigan and moved into an old Farmington Hills farmhouse on 12 Mile Road.

In the early 1990s, he earned a BFA from Michigan State University, then an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, specializing in photography. With his art degrees, Harnois says, "I just wanted to do art, and I did." Harnois worked for General Motors, on tugboats, painting and roofing, and as a commercial photographer. What he's learned by wiring, roofing and plumbing he's used to build the coops on his farm. He continues to make art (his favorite collection incorporates photos of him with his birds) and poems about his life.

In 1993, Harnois moved from 12 Mile to Whitmore Lake to raise birds because "I wanted to know what I was eating." As farm animals go, poultry was low-risk.

"If you lose a steer," he says, "it's expensive. You lose a chicken, it's not that bad."

Now, he's more than a decade into his work. He also works as a substitute teacher — and aspires to teach special ed full time — so he can invest money in his farm.

"My No. 1 priority is Nicholas," he says, referring to his 10-year-old son. "My No. 1 priority is finding a teaching job, and my No. 1 priority is my birds."

His biggest lesson so far has been economics — originally, Harnois charged the Kroger price for his turkey meat, $1.50 a pound in the 1990s. But he couldn't compete with the supermarket and stopped raising turkeys. A friend convinced him to start again, so Harnois raised his price and buyers paid it. Over time, he's increased his turkey flock from 15 to 300.

Turkey economics

People are just starting to realize how lean and healthy turkey is. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, national turkey production has tripled since 1970 to meet consumer demand; in 2004, U.S. consumers bought 17 pounds of turkey per capita. And, it's not just about Thanksgiving anymore; the turkey industry has diversified, expanding beyond the holiday table, into the deli and daily food markets.

"Turkey production in Michigan is growing," says George House, executive director of the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries Inc. Michigan produces about 5 million turkeys a year; 2 percent to 4 percent of those are heritage breeds; and the other 96 percent are large commercial birds that are produced and eaten year-round. "The breast meat is the most desirable part," House says, "that's generally cooked and then sliced and you buy it in delis." You won't find heritage breeds in the typical deli aisle yet, though demand for heritage turkeys, as with other heritage foods, is increasing. "People want to know where their food is coming from," says Rodger Bowser, chef at Zingerman's.

A turkey year

January through April are slow months on the Harnois farm. The holidays are over, the turkeys are gone and only a few egg-laying ducks, geese and chickens stay through the winter.

When the phone rings at 6 a.m. in early April, Harnois knows who it is — the Narragansett turkeys have arrived and are waiting at the post office. Shipped through the mail, they're downy, yellow, one-day-old poults when they're packaged 100 to a box and shipped across the country from Texas. Harnois and Nicholas unpack the birds, one by one, and dip their beaks first into water, then into food, like their mother would have done in the wild.

"Most people don't do that," Harnois says, "and I think I have higher survival rates because I do." Once the birds have gotten the hang of eating and drinking, it's all they do, through summer and fall.

Of course, he'd never name any of his birds — he'd never be able to eat them.

How does Harnois handle the cruel aspects of his work?

Harnois says he "doesn't take death well." He also understands the circle of life and raises his birds, sends them to a nondescript building to be processed (though he doesn't stick around to see what happens inside the building). He can then cook them for a dinner that can be traced from start to finish.

This year has been hard on Harnois. He had the flu when the Narragansetts arrived in April; then, in July, due to unpredictable weather and a power outage, some of his newborn turkeys died.

Alternative energy has also taken its toll. Thanks to ethanol, he says, the price of feed for his birds has all but doubled, going from $650 for three tons of feed last year to more than $1,000 for the same amount. "And I can't double the price of birds."

Talking turkey

Harnois relaxes on his couch, oatmeal-colored socks poke out from under his green work pants. He looks up at his artwork and photos perched around the room. "In my mind," he says, "I see a building with a concrete floor, with hot water under the floor for heating, and garage doors so [the birds] can get out and I can go in and clean." That investment would allow him to raise poultry year-round, instead of trying to beat the unpredictable Michigan weather.

So far, Harnois has grown his farm slowly. When a friend told him to spend more time marketing and let someone else raise the birds, Harnois dismissed the idea. "Marketing is the worst thing I do," he says, "I just want to grow stuff."

Samantha Cleaver is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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