At 67-acre Springfield Farm in Sparks, Baltimore County, Valerie Lafferty, 49, and her extended family ride herd on approximately 750 turkeys, about 200 of which are Narragansetts, a heritage breed, including 60 (55 hens, five toms) kept for reproductive purposes, with the others sold for their meat. The farm also raises and sells chickens and geese (eggs and meat), plus rabbits, steers, pigs and lambs (all for meat). Established in 1856, Springfield segued from a crops operation to a free-range animal farm run by David Smith and his two daughters, Marketing and Customer Service Manager Lafferty and Financial Officer Catherine Webb, and their families in 1999. Lafferty talks turkey.
Tell me about Narragansett turkeys.
Heritage turkeys are naturally breeding, flying turkeys, unlike the typical grocery store broad-breasted white turkey that has to be artificially inseminated for egg fertilization and is too bulky to fly. It is also believed that heritage Narragansett turkeys are direct descendants of the turkeys the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving. We have had them live as long as eight years.
Why can these turkeys fly?
They are not genetically altered from the original turkeys they descend from, and are very similar to wild turkeys, which also fly. They escape constantly (LOL), but that also allows them to fly away from the occasional predator, including fox, raccoon, hawk, great horned owl, possum, mink and even coyote and bobcat.
Taste-wise, what distinguishes Springfield’s turkeys from the supermarket variety?
Heritage turkeys’ white breast meat has a slightly pink tinge, is moist and has a nice flavor. The dark meat is sweeter than a supermarket turkey’s but not gamey. The breast is smaller—narrow, not plump, and the yield is much less. We also raise broad-breasted white turkeys on our farm, the same breed as the supermarket, but we grow ours much slower, and our customers notice a denser, juicier meat.
Do people balk when they hear your heritage turkeys’ $9-per-pound price?
Long-time customers don’t bat an eye. We explain the unique breed, and that the growth period of six-to-nine months requires more man-hours to raise the turkeys, plus more feed, all of which factor into pricing. And the idea that these are the same type of turkeys the Pilgrims enjoyed seems to be a good selling point.
How do you feel about the annual White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey before Thanksgiving?
The tradition is a good one, although the pardoned turkey isn’t likely to live much longer. Those turkeys are designed to keep growing at an increased rate and will typically reach a maximum weight and then have a heart attack. We have never pardoned any of our turkeys intentionally, although when catching turkeys for Thanksgiving processing, the occasional turkey escapes high up into a tree, and we allow it to live another year with the breeding flock.
Describe your family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
We roast a heritage turkey, make gravy from the juices, and also serve stuffing, cranberry sauce and pineapple dressing made from an Amish recipe passed down from my husband’s [Chief Production Officer Doug Lafferty] grandmother.