One of our tips for bringing Farm to Family Food home is to “get local” and identify your favorite local sources. When it comes time to get our Thanksgiving turkey, one of our favorite local sources is Whiffletree Farm. Whiffletree Farm is Jesse and Liz Straight’s small family farm and they raise pastured turkeys, foraging pork, 100% grass fed beef, and more. Whiffletree Farm doesn’t use any chemicals or antibiotics and the all the animals enjoy non-GMO grains and fresh pasture.
This Thanksgiving, we wanted to feature an #8isEnoughQuestions interview with a key person in the Farm to Family Food Chain – a farmer, like so many others, who work hard everyday so that we can enjoy our Thanksgiving turkey. Jesse Straight’s interview is part of our Full Van Fun Thanksgiving which also includes an interview with renowned restaurateur and television star Chef Marc Murphy, family artist, Turkey Andersen (of course) and a story about our recent visit to the home of Abraham Lincoln, a father of the Thanksgiving holiday. For this #8isEnoughQuestions interview, each of the following questions was written by one of our Full Van Fun family members and answered directly by Jesse Straight of Whiffletree Farm. Enjoy!
1) How much is the whole family involved in the farm?
Part of why I was drawn to farming was because of the way the work integrates the whole family. I really like the idea of my work, family, and home to be all tightly connected! I see that makes all three happier! So how that actually plays out has changed a little here and there as our family has changed.
For example, my wife Liz helped with more aspects of the nuts and bolts of the animal-care and business upkeep (bookeeping, etc) before we had 5 kids and before she was homeschooling two of them! In the last several years, as our family has grown and the needs of our kids have grown (such as the home schooling), more of Liz’s time has been focused on home and kids and less on animals and business. Now, Liz will help me in our weekly “business meetings” where I bring up all the things that are getting me stuck and she and I can hash out solutions. Additionally, Liz will help me with her writing and artistic talents on discrete projects–say, if we are making a pamphlet, or working on an article, etc.
Also, as our kids get older their involvement has grown. Our oldest three (7, 5, and 4) all have their “special work day” where I get them up early in the morning (they laid out their work clothes the night before), and we go do the morning chores together. This is really fun and they have a good time with their special “Papa” time. I try to make the work fun (we joke and tell stories, I playfully tease them, etc.) and I try to encourage their satisfaction in the work (point out how much they have learned and how much they are helping me). For some of the work I will pay them (for example: $.50/dozen eggs cleaned). When we get home from chores, they are often bursting in the door proudly telling their mom and siblings all that they did that day and the money they earned and any of our small adventures–like the cute nest of field mice we found or how I played a prank on them, etc. Beyond their “special work day,” the kids will often hang out with me in the Farm Store, which doubles as my office too.
And also, my mom and dad help out a bunch. They clean eggs every Monday and Friday (for which the kids love to be around!), in addition to jumping in here and there as needed! I love having my parent’s help–for their help and for that time and relationship. In addition, I love it for Liz and the kids. We have a lot of nice time together. Of course, exactly how my family is involved in the farm will change as our family changes. But essentially, it is my goal to be the kind of dad, husband, son, and farmer that gives the best shot at wooing my kids and family to work with me (and eventually, when the tables are turned, and I am older, that I would be invited to help them in their work).
2) Compared to the other animals on the farm, are turkeys hard to raise?
Turkeys are unique in that they require more attention when they are young. They are curious, and when young, naive of danger. Therefore, you have to be very careful to not give them any way in which they can pile up on themselves or get stuck in a random gap here or there in the brooder (where we start the poults until they are hardy enough to go out to pasture).
Once they are about 5 weeks old and out to pasture, they are very hardy and more worldly-wise. They are really fun to raise as they are both social (for example, they come running to me when I come to take care of them) and love the pasture–they happily and greedily gobble down grass and bugs. This is really satisfying because it really shows me that we are raising them in a way that fits their nature and makes them happy and healthy!
The only other tricky thing about raising turkeys is that we are raising them for Thanksgiving which means we are raising them late into the year–so it is colder and there is the danger of hurricane season! We had one of my worst catastrophe’s with Superstorm Sandy–a real low point in my farming life.
3) Where do the turkeys live?
We get the turkeys when they are one day old “poults” (baby turkey). They start in our “brooder,” which is a remodified horse barn. Our goal here is to keep them dry, safe, warm, clean, and well fed and watered until they are hardy enough to go out to pasture. Again, the idea is to imitate nature–so we are trying to be their proxy mother in keeping them dry, safe, warm, clean, and well fed and watered. Then, when they are about 5 weeks old we will take them to the pasture. In the pasture they will start in 10′ by 12′ floorless field shelters that we move every day to fresh pasture. These shelters give them access to the grass and bugs, protect them from predators, give them shelter and fresh air and sunshine. Then, once they are about 8 weeks old we will let them out of these shelters and give them large paddocks that are protected by electric poultry fencing. In these paddocks we will have mobile hoop houses to provide them shelter. At this point they are large enough to not likely be attacked by hawks and owls, and the electric fencing protects them from ground predators. We move them to fresh paddocks 1-2 times each week.
4) On a regular basis, what do turkeys act like?
Turkeys are easy to love. They are curious, social, and endearingly ridiculous. Like I said, they will run to me when I come to take care of them. It is hard not to like an animal that runs to you. And then, say when I am filling their feeders, they like to just be near me–all gathered round, just checking things out. They are endearingly ridiculous in that they look like small dinosaurs and the males add to their ridiculousness with their “tough guy” strutting–wings down, feathers popped up, head back, chest out, high stepping–to make sure I know that they are “the big men on campus.” Again, how could you not like turkeys!?
5) What type of food do you feed the turkeys?
The turkeys get about 40% of their nutrition from the pasture–grass and bugs–which makes them exceptionally healthy and tasty! The rest of their nutrition comes from the non-GMO feed we give them. It comes from a mennonite family business in the Shenandoah Valley–Sunrise Feeds. I first started working with them 7 years ago, as that is who Polyface uses. They are great people and do a great job. I love working with them and am very happy to be able to give our animals a non-GMO feed!
6. What type of stuffing do you put in your turkey?
Recently, we really like to use our sage pork sausage in our stuffing. This gives a nice little zing that combines well with the stuffing and turkey!
7. Are your customers more families or restaurants and how do you reach them? Your shop? Deliveries? Farmers Markets?
About 70% of our business is with families and individuals. The rest would be with restaurants, butchers, retailers, and local/organic home-delivery businesses. We reach our families and individuals in our Farm Store and in our delivery drop sites around northern Virginia, DC, Fredericksburg, and Charlottesville. We reach restaurants/etc. through a weekly delivery route that I make.
8. Where’s my turkey?
Hopefully in your fridge thawing!
Thank you Jesse Straight for an engaging and thoughtful #8isEnoughQuestions interview. Be sure to “Like Us” on Facebook so you don’t miss more of our Farm to Family Food recipes, tips, interviews and more!