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Hoosier turkey producers raise free-range birds
Indiana Correspondent

THORNTOWN, Ind. — There aren’t too many turkeys thankful for Thanksgiving Day in America, but on the Promised Land Farm, the turkeys live serenely with a varied diet and plenty of exercise.

Jim and Nancy Whelan began their Thanksgiving turkey business, selling directly to the consumer, five years ago. During that time, they’ve learned to talk “turkey.”

“The taste in the bird is in how it’s raised. We have repeat customers year after year,” Jim Whelan said last week. They sold all but one of their 123 turkeys last year. That one was theirs for Thanksgiving dinner.

Their turkeys feed in open pasture all day, as opposed to the confined-feeding operations that provide most of the turkeys in supermarkets nationwide.

“We don’t compete against Kroger or any of the groceries, with their 68-cent-per-pound turkeys. Our prices are average for pastured poultry,” Nancy Whelan said.

The biggest obstacles to the open-pasture method are predators, such as coyotes, raccoons and hawks. However, the Whelans have an answer for the predators: their donkey, llama and Boris, a dog the size of a pony, originating, oddly enough, from Turkey.

“Our donkey hates canines, but the first few days after we got Boris, he and Boris were best buddies. Boris was so big, I think he thought he was another donkey,” Nancy said.

The donkey, unfortunately, wised up and refused to have any more to do with Boris. However, the two still are a formidable team against the coyotes.

Though the Thanksgiving turkeys have become a highlight of the farm, Promised Land Farms began with a different focus.

The Whelans bought the Promised Land Farm so that Nancy could fulfill a long-held dream to own sheep for her sheep-herding dog, Brody, to enjoy. She has developed part of the farm into a training facility for sheep-herding dogs.

Though Brody is now gone, other dogs are following in his footsteps, and at times, that means herding turkeys.

“The dogs are not aggressive toward the sheep or the turkeys, but we have one turkey, Thumper, who would go across the street to pick on a dog,” Nancy said.

Thumper is one of their Heritage turkeys that the Whelans keep on the farm, not one of the Thanksgiving flock, of the Broad-Breasted Bronze variety.

The Whelans are thankful for their 32-acre farm and enjoy sharing it with others.

“The turkeys are our way of sharing our farm with other people. God was good enough to give it to us. This is our way of giving back,” Jim said.

They are not exactly giving away their turkeys. Pastured turkey taste comes at a cost of $3 per pound. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the Whelans host their annual turkey sale.

Jim, retired from the Department of Corrections and a steel mill job, enjoys the physical challenge of running a farm.

“It’s a world of difference,” he said of his present life. “The heaviest thing I used to pick up was a pencil.”

Now he carries more than a hundred sleeping turkeys, one by one, onto a truck, which takes them to their final destination, a processing facility.

Jim and his wife get attached to the Broad-Breasted Bronze poultry, which break out in an endearing waddle-run whenever they see the Whelans. However, Jim isn’t too sad to say good-bye.

“They know and I know their purpose. It’s like graduation day; you’re somewhat elated,” said Jim, a twinkle in his eye. “When they’re less than two-weeks old, I gather them all up, and we have a talk (on their purpose). They’re okay with that.”

Jim and Nancy buy their poults after Memorial Day and raise them until “graduation day.” The hardest part of the whole process is keeping the poults alive for the first few weeks under a heat lamp. “We start with 175, and this year we still have more than 150,” Jim noted, sounding satisfied.

The whole venture started with a seminar on pastured poultry in Hamilton County. The Whelans did their homework, but they still made some mistakes.

The first year, they attempted to haul their turkeys to the processor in an open pickup truck. It was a smooth ride until Nancy stopped for coffee on the way.

“Then the turkeys began to wake up under those lights, and they wanted something to eat, too,” Jim said, smiling.

When Thanksgiving is over, the Whelans still have plenty of company on their farm. Not only do they have the sheep, the dogs, the miniature donkey and the llama, they also are home to pygmy goats, many breeds of chickens, a family of peacocks and the Heritage breed turkeys.

Published in the November 23, 2005 issue of Farm World.