In Search of a ‘Regenerative’ Turkey

On a sunny day in October, Heidi Diestel holds her iPad up to offer me a good look at a flock of pastured turkeys at Diestel Family Ranch. When they see her at the fence, the large, black-feathered birds start to crowd together and move toward her in unison, clucking and squawking as they approach.

This is what passes for a farm tour in the age of COVID. In addition to the turkeys—which will be sold whole, and make up about 1 percent of the business’s total sales this year—Heidi is gamely showing me a selection of other scenes at the 400-acre Diestel home ranch in Sonora, California. Highlights include the compost they make with their turkey waste and sell to local gardens and CSA farms, the goats they graze on the land between turkey flocks, the pasture grass that has started growing in extra thick and healthy ever since they started applying compost to it, and the old feed mill. The mill is left over from the days before Diestel Family Ranch began working with close to a dozen other farms situated throughout California and the Midwest to raise the majority of their turkeys.

Diestel is a rare mid-sized player in an industry dominated by a short list of large companies. Heidi estimates that the company produces about .5 percent of all the turkey products in the country—in 2019, that number was 240 million—meaning it’s not an insignificant player, but nowhere near the likes of Butterball, Hormel, or Cargill. (In a typical year, around 40 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving, but this year, demand—and prices—appear to be down overall.) Diestel also acquired Sonoma County brand Willie Bird early this year and has worked with General Mills to provide turkey for its Epic bars.

Ever since Heidi, her husband, Jared Orrock, and her brother Jason Diestel took over the company from their parents 13 years ago, she says they’ve been slowly changing the way they do things. And yet while the Diestels tout their regenerative practices prominently on their website and in marketing material, they don’t yet include the term on their the label.

“We’re trying to find the most authentic way to bring it to market,” says Heidi. “We’re not crop farmers, we’re not testing our soil, and we’re not raising cattle on thousands of acres. The full-circle process and the contribution that our organic material makes when we make it into a high-quality humus compost . . . that in itself is a regenerative process. Does it directly always impact the turkey farming piece of it? Not always.”

Indeed, as popular as the term regenerative, and the thinking behind it, has become, truly regenerative turkey is a rare thing. And, as Diestel’s efforts suggest, it’s much less cut-and-dried than many consumers might think.

While regenerative agriculture still doesn’t have one agreed-upon definition, its focus on repairing soil health and sequestering carbon has also shed light on the need to balance the nutrients that soil needs to stay healthy without causing pollution. When it comes to raising animals, that means creating a system that inverts the approach of conventional indoor poultry production, which results in loads of waste, and therefore loads of displaced nutrients.

So far, herbivorous ruminants have been a big part of the regenerative story because they can live on 100 percent grass and the other plants or forage that grow in a pasture. And for crop farmers building soil using cover crops, grazing has been an important way to turn those crops into revenue.

Poultry production, on the other hand, requires high-protein corn and soy feed. For this reason, experts say turkeys must be part of a larger regenerative farming system to warrant the term.

(Photo courtesy of Joyce Farms)

Cliff McConville of All Grass Farms in Dundee, Illinois, is one of several farmers raising a small flock of turkeys on pasture with other animals in a rotational grazing system popularized by the likes of the Savory Institute and Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. Located just outside Chicago, the farm has seen a spike in demand since the pandemic and McConville says he isn’t worried about updating his labeling to incorporate the term regenerative—even if he’s quick to apply it when describing their practices.

On the farm, chickens and turkeys follow cattle and hogs through a series of paddocks, eating bugs and grass and spreading the cows’ manure around so it is more effectively absorbed into the soil. And while the birds get a good portion of their calories from the pasture, they also do a lot more running around, meaning they use up more calories than confined turkeys do. So the farm still needs to rely on corn and soy to get them to grow to the size most consumers are looking to buy, which—in a typical year—can be as large as 18 pounds.

“People come to us and say, ‘I want a turkey that doesn’t get any supplemental feed,’” says McConville. “And if I totally let them forage free range on 20 acres of pasture they might survive; but they’re not going to be very fat.”

McConville is still learning about the value turkeys bring to a holistic grazing system, but he’s optimistic. Early this year, he says he tested the soil in around a dozen locations on his farm and the field where he keeps turkeys every year has the highest levels of organic matter in the soil. “It has almost 7 percent organic matter,” he explains, “which is crazy because most of the fields around here are much lower; this was a conventional farm before we took over five years ago.”

The farmer isn’t sure what role the turkeys have played in improving the soil so quickly, but he has a guess. “It could be just that they spread a nice layer of manure around each paddock,” he said. “They don’t concentrate it like the laying hens but seem to wander around the whole area.” This fall, he began placing turkeys on some of the other fields to see if he gets the same results.

Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, the umbrella organization behind the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label, says he’s always had questions about poultry in the context of regenerative agriculture.

“Chickens and turkeys eat what we eat,” says Gunther. “They need methionine, lysine, and high levels of protein. Humans are more efficient at turning that into energy than chickens. So, why do we pass those nutrients through a chicken?” Ruminants, on the other hand, he adds, “take cellulose that we can’t digest and turn it into digestible protein—and in the process, they also encourage grass growth and they put nutrients on the ground.”

A Greener World is getting ready to launch a new regenerative agriculture label that Gunther says will encompass “a social justice component and an animal welfare component based on AWA,” in addition to looking at how farmers regenerate their soil and cycle nutrients. And unlike the new, high-profile Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), it won’t require producers to obtain organic certification.

Gunther sees the possibility for turkey production to be certified regenerative, but he doesn’t anticipate that many producers will fit the bill.

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“If you have a system that has more nutrients [i.e., animal waste], you can partner with a neighbor that grows grains, then you’re in a space where perhaps turkey could be considered to be regenerative,” he says. “Or, you know, you could produce enough feed for your turkeys on your own farm and you use the nutrients the turkeys produce to fertilize the grains.” But that type of effort is few and far between.

The Main Street Project in Northfield, Minnesota, appears to be doing the most out-of-the-box regenerative poultry farming, using a silvopasture model that relies on carbon-sequestering perennial trees and shrubs that also provide shelter from predators. But so far, the project—which provides training and business incubation for Latinx and East African immigrants in the area—hasn’t branched out to include turkeys.

“Our model is based on what seems to be a return to the natural habitat for the chicken. Evolution-wise, they began in the jungle environment, so they grew up within a canopy,” says Bob Kell, who is the Main Street Project’s director of training. The perennial plants also absorb the nitrates from the bird’s waste and prevent runoff.

Kell isn’t sure about how their work would transfer to turkeys, but adds that it’s entirely possible. “Wild turkeys can also live in the woods, so there may be something that could transfer there,” he said.

And yet, while the Main Street Project uses the term regenerative to describe its work, it sells a limited number of chickens through local CSA subscriptions, and so hasn’t put that language on the label.

Joyce Farms, an operation based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, works with a handful of small pasture-based farms around the Southeast, is selling a turkey with the word regenerative. The farm gained permission from the Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to add regenerative to the label after providing written documentation according to the agency’s latest guidelines.

Stuart Joyce, the company’s vice president of operations, says the farm is also looking for a third-party certification program that is rigorous enough not to allow for a watering-down of the concept.

“We don’t want to see it go the way of ‘sustainable,’” adds Joyce. “Because what does that really mean these days?”

He says that while the birds aren’t a huge part of what makes the systems on their farms regenerative, they do play an important role in helping conventional farmers transition to a set of practices that includes planting a range of cover crops, cutting out tillage and chemical inputs, and building organic matter in the soil.

“We plant a variety of winter peas, oats, clover, rye grass [on the pasture] and a bunch of other stuff that works really well to cover the bare soil, and it holds up to the turkeys walking outside, stomping on it,” says Joyce. The farm also builds in a rest period between flocks, which allows the pasture—and the soil—a break.

Joyce Farms raised more than 4,000 turkeys this year, and they have sold out of their Thanksgiving birds. “Turkey sales significantly increased this year,” Joyce says.

All Grass Farms, which raised over 500 for the holiday, also sold out this year, and had to stop marketing the turkeys early on because the demand was so high.

Jason Diestel stands next to some of the compost their turkeys have helped produce. (Photo courtesy of Diestel Family Ranch)

Despite this recent interest in turkeys raised by small, niche operations due to the pandemic, Jason Diestel, vice president of operations at Diestel Family Ranch, says it’s a different story when you’re selling them on a larger scale. The business started raising the birds in 2012, even though they’ve been able to increase the flock size every year since then.

To Gunther’s point about a closed circle, Jason said he has tried to find a corn producer in California to provide feed in exchange for compost from the ranch, but such a relationship has yet to materialize. He says he’s working with some producers in the Dakotas who grow their own feed grain.

The biggest hurdle in scaling up their pasture-based and regenerative practices is the cost to producers, and therefore to consumers. And Heidi Diestel says the company is committed to producing more affordable options.

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The company, which works with Global Animal Partnership (GAP), to certify its animal welfare practices, sells turkeys all along the 5-step GAP scale, meaning they range from Step 1, where the birds are raised cage-free but still raised in indoor, concentrated settings, to step 5, where they live on pasture.

Diestel has been targeted for those lower-welfare practices on the farms from which it buys turkeys in campaigns by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, and it was also recently the target of a class action lawsuit claiming it markets all its products like they come from the home ranch and claiming that the marketing language they use—“thoughtfully raised”—is false advertising. Diestel counter-sued and responded by saying, “All of Diestel’s family of turkeys are labeled according to the GAP ratings and the product’s attributes are stickered on the packaging.”

It’s one thing to produce a few thousand turkeys and sell them directly to consumers, but if you’re trying to reach a wider audience in retail settings such as Whole Foods, cost is the driving factor.

“The demand for high-quality turkeys is just about price point a lot of the time,” said Heidi, who pointed to the fact that many retailers treat cheap holiday turkeys—often priced as low as 99 cents a pound—as loss leaders.

“As long as there’s a low-cost alternative, it makes it much harder to compete,” added Jason. “A lot of producers are stuck in a system, where making the jump [to a system that costs them more to execute] is very difficult.

For that reason, he says he hopes to provide farmers with a bridge to an alternative approach, but it’s not going to happen overnight. “The economics of everything that we do has to shift. And once that happens, then the shifts, the changes of different agricultural production types can happen very rapidly.”

That said, Heidi explained that several of the farms which which they work are prepared to start running pasture-based systems. “We’re inching along. I think it’s going to be in more demand as people get back closer to where their food comes from,” she said.

“If we got to like 5 or 10 percent [of our total production], that would be a pretty big step,” said Jason, who hopes to be able to bring down the cost of their multi-species grazing program over time. “Every year, we’ve been learning a little bit more. And having [more pastured birds] could definitely open up some new opportunities in terms of having a more direct impact on soils.”

Top image: Pasture-raised turkeys at Diestel Family Ranch (photo courtesy of the company).

 

Twilight Greenaway

Twilight Greenaway is the senior editor at Civil Eats and its former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, TakePart, Modern Farmer, Gastronomica and on Grist, where she served as the food editor from 2011-2012. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com.

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