Of the estimated 46 million turkeys destined for Thanksgiving Day tables, the few birds lucky enough to fall into the care of North Mountain Farm seem to have won the cosmic lottery.
Long summer days, when they are free to roam the 37-acre property at the base of the San Juan Mountains near Hesperus, define the lives of the turkeys until harvest time, said Laura Prow, who operates the farm with her husband, Timothy Prow.
“It’s a pretty good life for a turkey,” Laura Prow said. “They get to eat as much grass and wander around as much as they want. And, Jeff (a guard dog) makes sure they’re safe.”
Prow, originally from Massachusetts, and Timothy, who was born in Arizona but grew up in Colorado and Wyoming, found Durango like many who find themselves here: They were traveling and stumbled upon the small mountain town, immediately falling in love with its scenery and population of outdoor enthusiasts and farmers.
About four years ago, the couple purchased property in Hesperus with the hopes of turning it into a center for permaculture education, which the namesake magazine defines as a “practical method of developing ecologically harmonious, efficient and productive systems.”
Among the gardens, orchards and other animals the Prows raise, which include sheep, goats and chickens, one of their favorite yearly projects is raising turkeys.
“We just love doing it,” Prow said. “I’m always sad when turkey season comes to an end.”
Turkey season begins in March or April, when the Prows put in an order to an online hatchery for about 20 turkeys. In either May or June, the hatchery will send the Prows via the mail chicks that hatched the day before. They survive the journey on the yolk of an egg. Prow said they’ve had a near 100 percent success rate with this process.
Once picked up from the post office, the Prows dip the chicks’ beaks in water so they learn to drink, then place them in a small box that’s heated to about 100 degrees. The chicks will stay in the box for about two weeks while the Prows continue to feed, water and clean them.
After a month, the adolescent turkeys are placed in an outdoor area until the Prows decide they are ready to free-range.
“From there, we just let them go,” she said.
Prow said the farm chose to raise the Great White turkey, a breed more well-adapted to the San Juans high elevations and chaotic weather. The birds are fed and watered around 6 a.m., then let loose for the rest of the day, where they explore the property and always travel together. Around 7 p.m., they are locked up again.
The operation is so successful, said Prow, in large part because of the couple’s guard dog, Jeff, an ovcharka-akbash mix that was found in a rabbit hole on Colorado’s Front Range with nine other brothers and sisters.
“He is the reason we can have a farm,” Prow said. “We’ve seen bobcats, bears, all kinds of animals on our property, and we’ve never lost anything because of him.”
At around 16 weeks old, the male turkeys’ halcyon days of summer come to an end, and a few weeks later, the females too go to harvest.
“We do it the most humane way possible,” she said. “They’re so sweet: They learn your voice and follow you around. So when we do harvest, we thank each turkey.”
North Mountain Farm operates similar to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where customers can buy a share of the product in the beginning of the season, then get a notice when it is time for pickup. Turkeys, which Prow said are relatively expensive to raise, cost $8 a pound, with the birds ranging from 18 to 25 pounds.
The process connects customers closer to their food source, Prow said.
“We’ve gotten so far removed from where our food comes from,” she said. “And I believe it’s one of the fundamental points of making a society strong: knowing your farmer and buying food as locally as you can.”
Prow, who works as a school teacher, and Timothy, a local plumber, regularly offer classes on sustainable farming techniques, including how to raise and harvest turkeys.