Think before you gobble gobble
By CATHY DYSON
Mike Broaddus wasn’t at all interested in owning turkeys, but when they came as a package deal with other birds, he took them back to his farm.
There, amid the lush green pastures of Caroline County, Broaddus discovered that turkeys aren’t as stupid as they’re made out to be.
Don’t act shocked. We’ve all heard that the birds don’t have sense enough to come out of the rain. They could stare up at the sky, mouths open, until they drown.
Broaddus came to realize that wasn’t the case at all, at least not with his two juvenile females, called jennies.
They’re bronze turkeys, a heritage breed that hasn’t been genetically engineered to pack on pounds at the pace the white-feathered commercial breeds do.
No doubt the bronzes score a little higher on the intelligence scale, too.
When Broaddus comes home from work, the turkeys run to his silver Dodge Ram, then follow him around the farm like puppies.
He laughs at the way they lumber along, shuffling like old men when they try to keep up with the hyperactive guinea fowl they hang with.
Those are the birds Broaddus originally wanted, because they’re great watchdogs.
Fact is, the five guineas keep up such a ruckus of clucks and calls—with heads bobbing frantically to and fro—predators probably can’t stand to be around them.
They’re just plain silly, Broaddus said, not capable of the serious thoughts turkeys have.
He swears that at times, when the turkeys cock their heads and look at him a certain way, it’s because they want to say: “Hey, what are we doing today?” or “What’s up?” or “Whatta you got to eat?”
Don’t worry, Broaddus isn’t suffering from avian flu. But he has been exposed to turkeys enough to believe they don’t deserve their simpleminded reputation.
“To be a called a turkey shouldn’t be an insult,” said Broaddus. “They’re very intelligent.”
Broaddus, 50, is no city slicker who’s fallen in love with the first animal he’s raised. He’s a fifth-generation Caroline County farmer whose family has toiled the same Sparta soil since the Civil War.
His great-great-grandfather Richard Broaddus was an active-duty soldier who survived the entire war. He fought in the first major battle, at Manassas, and was present at the surrender in Appomattox.
Two months later, he was thrown from his farm horse and died.
He met his demise just down the hill from where Broaddus’ turkeys spend their time, roaming freely.
Broaddus cut timber for many years and has been a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent since March. He knows a lot about life on the farm, but there’s one aspect he avoids.
“I don’t like killing things,” he said.
That’s why neither of his turkeys will be on his table this Thanksgiving, or anyone else’s for that matter.
When Broaddus bought the turkeys in July, as he helped exhibitors pack up their wares after the Caroline County Agricultural Fair, he had a backup plan in case he didn’t like having them around.
He figured he’d fatten them up for someone else’s table, then sell them live—or “on the hoof”—as he does with the pigs and beef he raises.
“That’s not an option now,” he said. “They’ve become pets.”
He’s not kidding. How many farmers do you know who buy live crickets for their turkeys as a treat?
Rhonda Barnhart raised turkeys for several years
on her Rixeyville farm in Culpeper County. She agreed with Broaddus’ assessment.
“There is something sweet, curious and, I suppose, peculiar about turkeys,” she said. “I loved having them on our farm and wish I did have just a couple as pets. I miss the gobble.”
She’d be out on the farm, resting against a fence in between chores, and a turkey would fly up onto the fence beside her.
“They look at you with these really soulful eyes, just really interested in you,” she said.
Other turkey farmers agreed that the Thanksgiving centerpieces aren’t the dumbest critters that ever lived, but they’re not exactly Einsteins, either.
“They’re every bit, if not more, personable than a chicken, but none of them are real, real smart,” said Jason Gallant, a King George County resident who raises various birds for meat and eggs.
He said turkeys tend to be creatures of habit. “Once they learn what works for them, they do it over and over,” he said.
He enjoys watching the birds he raises, just as he appreciates the natural beauty of the elusive wild turkeys he hunts.
But unlike Broaddus, who bought his Thanksgiving turkey at the store, Gallant is thankful when he can put a turkey on the table himself, through his skill as a hunter or farmer.
“Everything loves to eat chicken and turkeys, and in my opinion you can’t get attached to them,” Gallant said. “If you don’t eat them, something else will.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425