How a Turkey Farming Family Prepares for Thanksgiving
GMO-free turkeys on the range at Diestel Turkey Ranch. (David Hosley/KQED)
What is it like to be a turkey farmer at Thanksgiving? It involves putting a lot of birds in one revenue basket. While turkey increasingly is part of everyday eating, just one signature American holiday is still the economic driver for the turkey portion of California's agribusiness sector.
There are more than 300 farmers selling turkeys in the state. The two biggest producers -- both in the top 20 nationally, according to the National Turkey Federation -- are Foster Farms and Zacky Farms, each headquartered in the San Joaquin Valley. A smaller operation, with a history going back to the 1920s is nearby, the Diestel Turkey Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Jason Diestel and his sister, Heidi, are their family’s fourth generation to raise turkeys in Tuolomne County. Reared just outside Sonora, they went to college on the coast, and eventually boomeranged back to the ranch, where 5,000 turkeys a day have been packaged this fall.
“We started range-growing turkeys, and my grandpa formally started Diestel Family Turkey Ranch in 1949,” says 26-year-old Heidi Diestel. “And since then, we’ve just been growing turkeys naturally, the right way, and we’ve kind of grown up with the natural foods industry. So there’s no antibiotics, no hormones, vegetarian fed. The turkeys are given the time and space to grow the way nature intended.”
According to National Turkey Federation spokesman Kimmon Williams, the market for organic turkeys is growing. The Diestels sell most of their whole birds and other turkey products in the western United States, but some as far away as New York. Jason Diestel, who just turned 30, is joining family members and other workers at the ranch putting in long hours.
“It’s our harvest season,” he says, wearing sanitary garb outside their on-site bagging line, “and so it’s pretty busy, and we’re just kind of doing everything we can to see that our customers get what they ordered.”
Their grandparents and parents started out selling mostly to nearby residents and stores, and then expanded to the Bay Area and beyond. Neighbors still like to order their main course for the holiday in advance.
“Here on the ranch we have a lot of the local community come out to pick up their turkeys,” says Heidi Diestel. “So the day before Thanksgiving is kind of, you know, calling in and checking on our customers to see if they have received our turkeys and have everything they need, and then handing out the local turkeys to the local community.”
When the last reserved bird is picked up, there will be a little celebration for friends and family on Thanksgiving eve. Then some sleep, but not much because Heidi and her mom will be up before dawn to answer hotline questions from customers all over the West.
And at the same time, there’s a turkey to cook. “Grandpa Jack is still with us, and he still insures that he roasts the turkey each year,” says Heidi Diestel. "But, you know, it’s always a really large turkey. Right around a 30-pound tom, cooked slow and low, with paprika, salt and olive oil paste, and with Granny’s stuffing right inside.”
There’s no one way to cook a turkey, she says. Brined, butterflied, spatchcocked can all be very tasty. It’s just the Diestel family tradition. And that’s true with putting the stuffing in the bird’s cavity.
“I would be lying if I said that our family doesn’t stuff," she says. "We stuff. We’re stuffers. Yeah. There’s many ways to do it -- stuff, unstuff -- but with Grandpa Jack around and kind of the family tradition, we stuff.”
Like much of California agribusiness, turkey growers see opportunities in diversifying the uses of the meat and opening new markets.
“When my grandpa had the business, he just did turkeys for the holiday,” says Heidi Diestel. “Same with my parents. And then consumers started asking, ‘I would really like ground turkey.’ So we created ground turkey. ‘I would really like sausages.’ We have just a small set of sausages. We have deli meats. We have bone-in breasts, boneless roasts, we have pre-sliced deli turkey available that’s non-GMO project verified. So, you know, it’s one of those things, where you keep adding to our turkey repertoire. And anything and everything you can do with turkey that tastes good, we’ll do it."
As their roles grow in the family vocation started by a great-uncle in the 1920s, these two millennials bring new ideas and skills, thankful to have their parents and grandparents as guides but applying their university educations.
Jason Diestel has particularly brought new elements to the sustainable farming practices with which he grew up. He is producing compost to help keep the soil healthy, and he’s sharing it with nearby farmers, master gardeners and schools that have gardens.
He is also proud of the heritage turkeys that have been brought back into the variety of birds that are raised. They look just like those turkeys we colored in elementary school with black feathers and red wattles.
“It’s a really special turkey that you can’t get anywhere else,” he adds. ”It’s got a great heritage behind it and a great story. They are a lot slower grown, so the growth rate is a lot slower. That’s by design. And they are a little wilder and they take extra care to get them going. But once out here on the range, they’re pretty easy going. They eat quite a bit more and take about twice as long to grow.”
America is facing a shortage of farmers. One study reports there are six times as many farmers 65 and older as there are 34 and younger. But this brother and sister think they’re in just the right place, ready to take the baton—or is it a drumstick?
“The transfer of responsibilities, the responsibilities today are different than they were 10 years ago, and they’re different than they were 50 years ago,” says Jason Diestel. “And so it’s just a natural progression and we all work together. We’re really fortunate to have, to be able to work with family. It can be challenging at times, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a pretty great opportunity and something that we all look forward to."
A stuffing recipe, courtesy of Diestel Turkey Ranch:
Savory Herb Stuffing
Quick and easy. No sauteing, just mix and stuff!
2 medium sweet onions
5 stalks celery
7 sprigs parsley
1-7 1/2 oz. bag stuffing cubes, unseasoned (approx. 8 cups)
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
1/2 pkt. herb seasoning* (approx. 1 tsp.)
1 tsp. dry marjoram leaves
3/4 tsp. dry oregano leaves
1/2 tsp. dry thyme leaves
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
Finely chop onions, celery and parsley. In a large bowl, mix with bread cubes. Sprinkle with olive oil. Toss to mix. Add seasonings. Mix thoroughly.
*note: If you don't have the herb seasoning packet, you might consider substituting 1 tsp. of sage.