• Video: Wattermann Family Farm.
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The first year Omahan Brynn Jacobs cooked a heritage, free-range, Nebraska-raised turkey at his Thanksgiving dinner, his relatives initially weren't so thankful.
“Everyone was hesitant,” Jacobs said. “You hear about gamy flavors, but after that first year, the family decided that my wife and I were making the turkey every year.”
So every year since that 2008 Thanksgiving, Jacobs has skipped the grocery store and bought his holiday bird locally, from Randy Wattermann, who raises both heritage-type and broad-breasted turkeys on his family farm near West Point, Neb.
Heritage breeds, like the ones Wattermann raises, can breed on their own and survive year-round on a free-range small farm like his.
This year, almost all of Wattermann's 176 birds will be on dining room tables around the state on Thanksgiving Day. Customers like Jacobs say they buy the local birds for many reasons, but the biggest is the chance to eat locally on the quintessential American food holiday.
Wattermann, 50, was born in Los Angeles but has roots in Nebraska — his great-grandfather homesteaded not far from where his land is now. He returned to the state 15 years ago to start farming. He started his turkey flock in 1998 and grew it until 2006, when he sold Thanksgiving turkeys for the first time.
The farm, about 90 minutes north of Omaha, is small and idyllic. Turkeys mill around next to cows and sheep; dogs keep everyone under control and cats and tiny kittens play inside a big barn. Chickens cluck in their own private pen. But the turkeys make up the bulk of animals on Wattermann's farm, and the social animals squawk and squeal and chortle when visitors approach. They're not shy and get close to inspect just about everything, especially anything shiny.
Wattermann's crop is free-ranging and roam all around his 27 acres of land. He isn't a farmer full time — he also sells financial software to banks — so his wife and eight children, aged 10 to 24, help. Wattermann breeds two types of heritage-type turkeys, sweet grass and heritage white. The heritage birds are his own local breed instead of one of the classic heritage breeds.He also buys commercial broad-breasted white birds as chicks.
Watermann said he didn't know of any other farmers raising free-range turkeys in eastern Nebraska, though he did know of one larger-scale turkey farmer in Kansas. Nebraska is home to similar small farms that raise heritage animals, including T.D. Niche Pork, in Elk Creek, Neb. and Plum Creek Chicken in Burchard, Neb.
Predators tend to leave the birds alone, and owls and wild dogs are the only things Wattermann worries about. He hasn't had large losses.
His heritage-style birds are covered in brown, gold and white feathers and have vibrant blue and purple heads with bright eyes. They look like a picture of a turkey in a child's picture book. The broad breasted whites have white feathers and their breasts, which have been genetically modified to be much larger, are indeed huge compared to the heritage birds. The broad-breasted whites are also squat animals, with shorter legs and necks.
Wattermann raises both kinds, he said, because some customers like the bigger amount of breast meat on the whites. The heritage-type birds lend a more balanced amount of white meat and dark meat.
He saves 30 of the best heritage-type birds to breed the following year's crop. Part of the reason he chose these two heritage-type breeds was because they are hearty enough to survive Nebraska winters. The birds that people will eat this fall for Thanksgiving are about six months old.
All the birds eat the same diet, a feed that's a mix of organic corn, oats, soy meal, vitamins and minerals. They also eat crab apples, acorns, bugs and grass. That diet, Wattermann said, has a lot more to do with what the birds taste like than their genetics.
“I haven't done a blind tast test,” he said, “but if you get a white bird and a heritage bird that grow together on the same diet, they do taste similar.”
He said the flavor of his birds is more intense than store bought birds and not as bland.
“It's a more concentrated flavor,” he said.
“It's just true turkey,” Jacobs said. “The white meat has more flavor, and all the meat just has a richer flavor. I know he's not injecting them with water.”
Another customer, Omahan Dawn Hammel, started buying turkey from Wattermann four years ago.
“The meat tastes better,” she said. “Its juicier and it has a nice flavor.”
Almost all of Watermann's customers reserve their birds online, and his flock is sold out for this year. Soon, he'll begin delivering the birds to Omaha and Lincoln. He meets customers at designated locations, where he refunds them the $10 fee he charges online to reserve a turkey, swipes their credit card using his iPhone and sends them on their way with their flash-frozen bird. Other turkeys are delivered through the Nebraska Food Coop. Open Harvest grocery store in Lincoln reserves 50 of his birds to sell to customers.
Customers decide ahead of time what size bird they will need. Wattermann divides them into three groups: eight to 12 pound heritage-type breed hens, 12-18 pound heritage-type toms and 18-22 pound broad breasted whites.
Wattermann doesn't brine his bird, but does cook it upside down so the white meat stays moist.
Jacobs has brined his birds, and he's also smoked one. This year, he'll fry both the turkeys he ordered from Wattermann.
Heritage birds do cost more — about $4.50 a pound, compared to about $2 per pound for a frozen turkey — but Hammel thinks it's worth the cost.
“I think some people balk at the higher price,” she said. “But it's worth it to me knowing that I am supporting local agriculture.”
Wattermann said more and more consumers are thinking that. Since he started raising turkeys, sales have grown each year.
“When it's a holiday,” he said, “people feel like it's OK to splurge.”
Wattermann Family Farm