Piney Flats farmer preserving heritage turkeys, sustainable agriculture

Nathan Baker • Nov 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Brant Bullock is a busy guy, but if you give him half a chance, he’ll talk turkey for hours.

In addition to pigs, cows and chickens, Bullock’s King Family Farm is home to a group of turkeys — called a rafter — some of which will land on Thanksgiving tables in the area later this month.

At the Piney Flats farm, Bullock mostly breeds and hatches the birds, an incubation period that usually starts in the early spring and takes four weeks. Because of the different demands of raising breeders versus meat birds, he usually selects a few dozen of the finest specimens to keep for breeders next year, then ships others to partner farms to be raised for meat, which takes another 24 weeks. Some of the poults, the baby turkeys, are sent to breeder farms elsewhere in the country to help diversify the country’s stock.

Unlike Bullock’s birds, large-scale commercially produced turkeys usually found in the grocery store cooler can’t mate because of the oversized breasts for which they’re prized by thankful diners, and because of their relatively short lifespans — about 16 weeks.

Most turkeys consumed in the U.S. are the product of artificial insemination, leading to a lack of genetic diversity that worries Bullock and other old-school poultrymen.

Bullock said he can trace some of his birds’ genetic lines to the 1800s. Others are descendants of famed breeder Norman Kardosh, an early advocate of what are now called heritage turkey lines, similar to heirloom vegetable varieties.

The King Family Farm’s flock of Narragansetts and American Bronzes, is one of only two in the state certified by the Sustainable Poultry Network, an organization that advocates for maintaining safely produced standard-bred birds.

“We want to be here to help grow that sustainable model,” Bullock said Thursday, while eyeing gathering clouds in the afternoon sky, hoping to finish his day’s work before forecasted rain. “Our birds are much heartier than the one that are genetically engineered.”

When his turkeys are ready for the slaughter, Bullock send them to a certified United State Department of Agriculture facility for processing. He could process them on the farm, but he’d only be able to sell them in Tennessee because of safety regulations.

By sending them to a federal facility, he can sell to customers in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, all of which have received Bullock’s birds during his four years of breeding and raising them.

There is high demand for the time- and labor-intensive poultry, so it’s mostly only members of his community-supported agriculture program who get their hands on the farm’s turkeys.

Through the program, a model used by small farms across the globe to help encourage the consumption of local produce, King Family Farm delivers monthly boxes of beef, pork, chicken, turkey and eggs to those who sign up in the spring.

Bullock limits the number of CSA members to 50 to help maintain a sustainable level of production, and said the slots are usually full.

One problem he frequently faces is a lack of forethought on the part of consumers. People want to eat one of his turkeys for Thanksgiving, but they don’t start shopping for one until November.

Bullock needs to start planning for Thanksgiving production in the spring, when the birds lay their eggs. By November, all his turkeys are usually spoken for.

Because they’ve signed up early, CSA members get first priority for birds. With what’s left over, usually not many, Bullock goes to the Bristol and Johnson City farmers markets. He’s working on a partnership with Jonesborough’s Boone Street Market to feature some of his products.

He wants to get his birds out there, because, aside from the monetary benefits of increasing sales, circulating what he believes is a superior product in the community is an advocacy effort on its own.

Higher demand for heritage turkeys and chickens will result in more being bred and the preservation of the endangered genetic lines.

“The only way to save them is to eat them,” Bullock said.

To sign up for the King Family Farm’s CSA waiting list for next year, or for more information about its offerings, visit www.thekingfamilyfarm.com.

Email Nathan Baker at nbaker@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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