PERHAPS A.J. Collinsís ongoing concern shouldnít come as a surprise. After all, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of the most highly publicized animal-rights groups in the country, doesnít let Thanksgiving slip by unnoticed. This year, musician Moby is sponsoring a campaign encouraging people to call "turkey-corpse seller" Butterball and tell it "there is no proper way to kill and cook these birds."
And thatís not all. "This year, we have people [dressing] in turkey costumes and theyíre hobbling across streets in main areas of towns," says national PETA Vegan Campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich. "Last year, we did demonstrations with people in turkey costumes and huge bridge banners. People in the turkey costumes waved to commuter traffic, at rush-hour traffic, and the banners said, thanksgiving is murder on turkeys."
"With all the publicity PETA gets, especially around Thanksgiving time, [local farmers] probably just get a little sensitive," says Diane Baedeker-Petit, the media program coordinator of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture. "They probably donít want to call attention to that side of the business," she adds, delicately tiptoeing around the slaughtering aspect of animal farming. "Which, really, every reasonable person knows [is] what happens."
Which is precisely where Iím coming from. This is Thanksgiving, after all, and people eat turkey. A lot of people eat turkey: according to the National Turkey Federation, 98 percent of American households served Thanksgiving turkeys last year, a figure that signifies 45 million birds. In Massachusetts, farmers sold 79,000 birds during the year 2000. "That represents almost two million pounds of turkey," says Baedeker-Petit. "The value of production that year was about $2.6 million."
But according to Linda Simpkins, manager of the Natick Community Organic Farm ó a farm with such a small crop of turkeys (150) that it can accommodate daily bird walks and open-air coops ó a lot of people donít want to know how their food got to their plates. "I think weíre living in a society where people have no clue where their food comes from," Simpkins says. "Thereíre a whole large group of consumers in suburbia that donít want to know that their food was walking around." Assuming thatís true, publicity could be bad business for turkey farmers.
And, Simpkins chuckles, "People donít want to know where their poop goes, either."
HEREíS WHAT I can tell you about Adrian Collins. Heís from Austin, Texas. Heís been working at Out Post since 1983, ever since he saw a help wanted sign soliciting apple pickers, and heís owned the farm for the last 10 years. He knows most of his customers by name. He prepares a mean turkey soup and prefers pigs to turkeys. He often growls like Tim Allen. Heís enamored with tools. If he ever writes a book, itíll be called The Adventures of Adrian. Heís playful, funny, and constantly joking. At some point in his life ó when asked, he wonít disclose exactly when ó he dreamed of becoming a sportswriter. Sometimes he needs to check with his employees to find out how much his farm charges for a pound of potato salad. Beyond that, thereís little to unearth about Adrian Collins, because he asks more questions than heíll agree to answer.
After weíve returned from our farm tour, Iím hanging out in the kitchen, watching him wrap whole cooked turkeys in aluminum foil. Each bird bears a numbered tag on its leg: 18, 18 Ĺ, 14, 17, 16.
"So what do the numbers mean?" I ask innocuously, though Iím pretty sure that theyíre each turkeyís size.
"Their names," Collins replies.
Mel ó a 16-year-old home-schooled teenager who slaughtered turkeys at 14 but began working at the store when Collins needed her here ("So I donít play with [turkeys] anymore; I just play with them when theyíre dead") ó giggles. "Heís always like this," she says.
"Fine, theyíre the sizes," Collins confesses. "But why are you writing down the sizes?"
"You know, for color."
"For color?" he guffaws. "So can I take a tour of your office sometime? I write for a farm newsletter, and Iíd like to do an article on reporters."
A few minutes later, I ask, "What breed are your turkeys?"
"Whatís the major difference between white turkeys and other breeds?"
In less than 10 seconds, he switches the subject. "So, do you read a lot?"
"Arenít I supposed to be asking the questions?"
Collins acts like he doesnít hear me. "Whatís the last book you read?"
I rattle off a nonfiction book he hasnít heard of.
"Did you read that book about midwives?"
"No. What book about midwives?"
"I donít know. There was one I read."
"So, are turkeys really stupid?" I interject, hoping to shift the dialogue back to the birds.
"Oh yeeeeeeeeah," Collins says. "But your readers donít want to hear that. I donít want them screaming at me, ĎYou canít talk that way about turkeys!í "
"Yeah, but everybody says that turkeys are stupid," I say.
"We live in a very sensitive society these days," he says, feigning a weepy tone. "So whatís the statement youíre trying to make with your shoes?"
SO BACK to the turkeys. Iím scrunched up on this stoop, entranced by a basement full of squawking birds, and wondering if today was completely wasted. But somehow, even though I didnít get either the reception or the story Iíd anticipated, I find it hard to think thereís nothing here to be learned. Iím not sure what this lesson is exactly ó maybe that farmers want their privacy, that white tom turkeys look like accident victims, or that I should wear nondescript shoes on the job ó but it seems worth noting that a straightforward story about turkey farms can wind up being not so straightforward at all.
A few minutes later, when I make my way out of the turkey pen, I stop to look at two handmade signs leaning against the wall at the top of the stairs. "Old advertisements," Collins said dismissively when we passed them this morning. I hadnít studied them earlier, but now I see that one is a poster for a slashed-price sale held some past October called whacky weekend ó wacky is spelled with an h.
The other one bears the slogan sat nite special above the painted outline of a handgun. The tagline below reads, "This one ainít banned yet!"
This time, I donít bother to ask.
Camille Dodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org