WASHINGTON - For many Thanksgiving fanatics, the sides are the highlight of the meal -- mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
But for Catherine Webb, Thanksgiving is all about the turkey.
"This is the type of turkey our settlers were eating for their first Thanksgiving dinner," says Webb, pointing to a loosely fenced pasture of free-range Narragansett turkeys.
Webb and her family raise heritage turkeys on the farm her father purchased in 1999, just north of Baltimore in Sparks, Md.
While the small family farm also produces beef, pork and dairy throughout the year, it's safe to say this time of year is the busiest for Springfield Farm.
In just a few weeks, the 600 turkeys Webb has cared for since the spring will live their final days in the pasture before making their way to the Bethesda, Rockville and Annapolis farmers markets and eventually to the Thanksgiving table.
"Quality is very important to us. We could certainly do more turkeys, but we chose not to," says Webb, who raises her birds outside and doesn't use any hormones, steroids or antibiotics in the turkeys.
"Because they're outside, they're a healthier bird," she says.
Ann Yonkers, co-executive director of FRESHFARM Markets says Webb's farming practices, and those like her, are very different from most conventional farmers.
"People are used to thinking about turkey being a cheap meat. It's because of the way it's raised," says Yonkers, who adds that conventional farming practices keep turkeys in a shed and give them growth hormones so that they grow faster in a shorter amount of time.
Some turkeys have lifespans of just five or six weeks. But not Webb's.
"We let them do their own thing," Webb says.
When it comes time to "processing" the turkeys, Webb approaches the routine humanely, and with great care for the birds.
"You can't rush them because they do get stressed," she says.
Neighbors and friends come over in the evening to help Webb and her family herd the birds into the turkey house. Once the birds settle down, they are caught by their legs and put into crates, where they are given the evening to rest.
Web says stressing the birds out affects the quality of the meat.
In the next few weeks, turkeys will start going on sale in grocery stores across the country for as little as 50 cents a pound for a frozen turkey and around $1.30 a pound for a fresh turkey.
Webb's turkeys, which range from eight to 30 pounds, sell for $8.50 a pound.
"You're going to see a big difference in the taste [from the conventional turkeys]," Webb says. "You can cut it with a fork."
The taste isn't the only difference between store-bought turkeys and fresh, locally-raised turkeys. Webb says there is also a difference in preparation. Fresh turkeys cook faster, since they are juicier and more tender.
"We cooked a 36/38 pounder and it only took four hours," says Webb, who adds the best way to cook the turkey is low and slow: 325 degrees, max.
And don't even think about brining the bird. This preparation is commonly used to tenderize the meat. Webb says her turkeys are already perfectly tender.
Even with a high price tag, there is no shortage in demand for the turkeys, whose diets consist of hay, clover, bugs and worms. Webb says interested customers call from other states, asking her to ship the fresh turkeys after they are processed.
However, that is not part of her sustainable farming model.
"We don't want to have that carbon footprint, and there are also other [local] farmers they can support," she says.
Webb is just one of the many farmers in the D.C. area who offer fresh, humanely-raised turkeys for Thanksgiving. Want one for your feast? Webb says not to waste any time. Most of the orders for her limited-supply of birds have been collected already.
How Catherine Webb started raising turkeys:
Interested in a fresh bird? Below is a list of the farmers taking orders for turkeys at the area's FRESHFARM Markets:
Annapolis: Springfield Farm is taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys via the website only. Customers can pick up turkeys at the Annapolis market on Nov. 24 or at the farm.
Crystal City: Coulter Farms will be taking turkey orders by email and at the Crystal City, Ballston and White House markets. Turkeys will be $4.00 per pound and range from 15 to 25 pounds. Pick-up of freshly butchered turkeys will be at the Crystal City market on Nov. 26.
Dupont Circle: Cibola Farms is currently taking orders for Bourbon Red Turkeys. They also have Bourbon Red Hens for $80 and Bourbon Red Toms for $120.
Eco- Friendly Foods is taking pre-orders for two types of turkey and will have them available for pick up the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Smith Meadows is also taking turkey orders for American bronze birds. You can choose a 10 to 12 pounder or 12 to 14 pounder.
Foggy Bottom: Three Little Pigs won't have turkeys at market but they will have a limited number of fresh turkeys from Polyface Farm for sale at the Petworth store.
H Street NE: Full Cellar will be offering two types of turkeys that are pasture-raised. The fresh, ready-to-cook birds will be ready for pick up at the H Street NE market Nov. 23. Call Kip Kelley at 301-639-9711 or email him email@example.com to reserve a bird.
Silver Spring: North Mountain Pastures is taking pre-orders for small, medium and large broad-breasted whites. All turkeys are priced at $4.95 per pound. The birds are pasture-raised and fed a local organically grown non-GMO feed. The birds will be available for pick up on the farm or at the Silver Spring market on Nov. 23.
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