At nearby Kinwood Farm, the turkeys live a happy, natural life right up to Thanksgiving
Like a clever wild turkey in survival mode, you have to think ahead and move fast to get a Thanksgiving bird at Kinwood Farm near Hooppole.
That's because the operators of Kinwood look at turkeys a little differently than most of us, who are used to seeing them around the holidays wrapped in bright plastic packages in a grocer's freezer.
"I've gotten tons of messages in the past few weeks for turkeys," said Danielle Jones, who with husband Isaiah operate the 197-acre farm that uses sustainable practices to produce a long list of garden and livestock varieties.
"Most people just go to the store and you buy one — it doesn't work that way here."
At Kinwood, customers must order a year in advance to ensure the operators will purchase a turkey chick (poult) that they will raise naturally and with tender, loving care to a full bird — and even dress it when the time comes. Customers who don't order in time don't get a chick and risk an empty Thanksgiving table next year.
It's the first year Kinwood has offered turkeys, but it won't be the last.
"My initial thought was, 'Everybody likes to eat a T-giving turkey,'" she said in deciding to take on the new livestock task.
She knew it was a risky venture, as turkey poults are very fragile and considered difficult to raise from hatchlings compared to chickens. But they were surprisingly resilient and lived through the winter.
"We had a few die and some run from the dogs, but they did well," she said. "The turkeys are super social and friendly. When I would open the door, they would come up on the front porch."
In all, nine survived and five were sold as meat, with four kept for breeding. She said that other than shelter and feeding, she didn't have to do anything special to get them to grow to adulthood and one ended up weighing in at 35 pounds.
"I didn't anticipate that," Jones said. "We're not ones to baby our animals. We think it makes them strong and vigorous and healthy."
She has plans order poults for next year by January.
Going full circle
It's not just turkeys that the Joneses treat with special care.
The Joneses use adaptive grazing systems, which feature a simple grid-pen system that has different animals using different grazing areas every day. Their cows and lambs are grass-fed using the rotational pasture method, with their diets supplemented by 100 percent organic grain purchased regionally.
When the grass is grazed in one area, the animals are moved to a fresh fenced grass stand the next day, with the Joneses planning and pushing them through the pre-mapped prime spots.
"We move animals onto fresh grass and feed as little hay to them as possible," she said. "The ideal is to get them to the freshest, strongest grass. We also keep them through the year. We feel like that's the most humane thing to do and ensures the animals are not stressed out."
She said many cattle farmers these days, lacking adequate grazing land, put their animals on overgrazed pastures that have been eaten to ground nubs in a practice called "carpet grazing," where there's as much bare ground as grass.
"At that point, it's also eroding and destroying the soil," she said.
In addition to using the animals' manure to replenish the soil, the system keeps the animals from spreading dangerous bacteria and ensures they are eating the tips of grasses, where the most nutrients lie, and with the knowledge the grass will grow back more quickly when the animals return after a full turn through the grid. The fowl are placed on garden beds to feed and spread soil-enriching manure for next year's vegetables, herbs and flowers.
"We get for free what people spend thousands of dollars on for their fields," she said.
The fifth-generation farm has been sustainably managed for about six years now but still is an admitted work in progress. The couple married nearly four years ago and have three children, the oldest 9 and the youngest 9 months.
The farm also offers organically grown produce and flowers, as well as eggs, honey and wool and naturally processed lambskin. It also raises a heritage variety of Cornish cross hens.
"The Cornish cross looks a lot different because the ones in the store have been hybridized," she said.
The Joneses use chicken tractors for the winged livestock, which is a half-enclosed mobile cage that allows them to move themselves freely to fresh grass all around the farm.
Kinwood's meat is sold by cut or in bulk and the Joneses run a drop-off delivery route along Interstate 80 almost daily from regular customers. They also sell subscribers variety meat boxes.
All of the Jones' products are produced without antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones or fungicides.
"The goal is to do as little work as possible," she said. "We let the animal kind of live their ideal lifestyle. We're just trying out different things and what we like."
A new, old way
The Joneses are part of a farming revolution that is a backlash to the industrial farming techniques the nation and world depends on for sustenance.
All over the country, and at several locations in West Central Illinois, new-era farmers have reclaimed tired farmland and almost willed to life a local option for agriculture products with fewer traditional farming "inputs" that are known to harm the topsoil and environment, and pose health risks.
But the Joneses don't consider themselves new-era farmers at all. Retro-era is more accurate, and they say the time has come to reach back to a more sustainable era of ag production that thinks long term and rejects chemicals and other "unnatural" ingredients.
"There's a disconnection with where (consumers') food comes from," Jones said. "Being able to raise and actually see the animal your going to eat and processing it yourself, it's a whole other level. That's the reality of how food works and it's good for people to know that."
Jones said she used to suffer from various ailments, including fibromyalgia, before she switched to a diet with less unprocessed food and more that came straight from the animals.
"Eating animal-based really helped me," she said. "I ate a kind of standard American diet and that's why I was sick. Now I eat some kind of animal product every meal."
The Joneses are not the only ones. Since the farm started operation, they've gotten customers with the same questions and concerns about their grocery-store food. Some of them volunteer or trade labor for food to help on the farm, and the Joneses have plans to make it a full-time venture that also includes an educational component local schools could utilize.
"I see people waking up to the reality of their food system," she said. "We have a lot of people like that; they just wanted to know where their food was coming from and how it's processed. We want to get more people interested next year and want more people to come and get their hands dirty."
Jones, who grew up on a traditional farm in DeKalb County, said the recent sustainably grown movement has gotten traction, and she and Isaiah would like to see it continue to grow. She said the high price of farmland is one impediment for starting a farm like Linwood, as well as the fact that the current success of commercial farming is propped heavily upon government subsidies.
"It's not easy, but it's totally doable," she said. "If you travel at all, you'll notice you don't see gardens and animals that often. I have people come to the farm and they remember doing (some of the old farm practices) as a kid. I'd like to see some transitional programs for these ideas."