Young Farmer, Old Turkey
By: Ramsey Nix
Photos by: Angelina Bellebuono
Most farmers discovering or rediscovering sustainable, organic agriculture are surprised by the amount of labor required, the difference in taste of the final product, and the profound connection to the earth they develop through the process. Gillen Donck Rains has never known any other way.
Born and bred on his family’s farm, Crystal Organic Farm, located between Newborn and Rutledge, Gillen is as much a product of his environment as he is its steward. “This farm has been here for 15 years. I’ve been here 11 years,” said the 11-year-old farmer.
Gillen may be a young farmer, but he is an old soul. He raises and harvests heritage breed turkeys like farmers did back in the 1800s. As far as he knows, he’s the only farmer in Georgia doing it this way, and therein lies his opportunity. “I want this to become a business,” he said with a gleam in his eye.
The 175-acre farm, first established when his Austrian grandmother and Belgian father moved here 26 years ago, has long produced organically grown produce, flowers, eggs, and chickens. His father Nicolas Donck and mother Madeline Rains helped found the Morningside Farmers Market in Atlanta, where they still sell to customers they’ve known for 15 years. They now sell to Whole Foods markets all over the city and to several top Atlanta chefs.
Gillen did not fall far from the proverbial tree. He’s been working on the family farm as long as he can remember, and he has big dreams for its future. Inspired by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, the hero of the locally grown movement in Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Gillen aspires to raise several different species of grass-fed animals in an intricate rotation that both protects the environment and the animals. He’s cutting his teeth on turkeys.
Last summer Gillen began researching heritage breed turkeys on the Internet. While most American turkey farmers raise the white breed, he wanted a breed that matched his idea of what the symbolic Thanksgiving turkey looks like. He discovered one called “Bourbon Red,” which the online hatchery called “a great farm turkey.”
“Heritage just means an old breed,” Gillen said. “They didn’t have these commercially bred white turkeys back then. They had these old turkeys that were much more gamey and ran around everywhere.”
Gillen ordered 15 Bourbon Red poults (baby turkeys) from a hatchery in Pennsylvania last August. They were flown to Georgia in the midst of a heat wave, and only one survived on the farm. Gillen named her “Cody.” “From the minute she got here, I’ve been proud of that turkey,” he said, pointing to one of several identical rust brown and white birds.
Undeterred by his initial disappointing experience with the turkeys, Gillen began scanning the farmer’s bulletin everyday for information about raising the heritage breeds. By the time Cody hatched her first five poults, he was ready for them. He fed them a life-saving mixture of hard-boiled yolk, yogurt and parsley throughout their first three weeks. The extra protein made them strong, and the parsley introduced them to greens, easing their transition to grass. All of the turkeys survived.
“I have 19 turkeys now, and that all started from one,” said the farmer.
Now that they’re grown, Gillen throws their feed, changes their water, and occasionally pads their nests with hay. When breeding season is over, he will separate the males from the females. The roosters will go to a smaller pen, where they’ll fatten up for harvesting. In the meantime, his birds are enjoying the great outdoors, where they peck the ground for grass and insects between gobbles.
“They talk a lot. We’ll be talking at lunch and hear them talking, eating, or taking a dust bath,” Gillen explained.
While he enjoys watching over his brood, he knows he can’t get too attached. Besides Cody, none of his turkeys have names. The family refers to them all as “dinner.” While it’s tough to raise the heritage breed birds, it’s tougher to slaughter them come harvest time, and that is another one of Gillen’s many responsibilities. The young man takes it in stride. “The first chicken we killed, it was a little hard for me, but then after that it was okay,” he said.
He killed his first turkey last year in time for Thanksgiving by knocking it out with a metal bar and slitting its throat. It sounds gruesome, but it is the most humane way to kill a bird, and the experience made the young farmer ever more grateful for the meat that eventually ended up on his plate. “Now that we do this, we don’t eat much meat anymore,” his mother said. “And he doesn’t ever want to eat meat again that isn’t from farmers we know.”
According to Gillen, his mother is a great cook. She brined last year’s Thanksgiving turkey before cooking it on low heat for a long time. It was the tastiest, most tender turkey he’s ever eaten.
Word has spread, and Gillen’s turkeys are now hot commodities. He already has a waiting list of customers who plan to serve his Bourbon Reds next Thanksgiving, and they are willing to pay a premium.
Now that Gillen knows just how much time, labor, and money is required to raise heritage breed turkeys, he understands the big price difference between them and commercially produced turkeys. “When I was in the supermarket, I saw a 15-pound turkey that cost seven dollars. That’s cheap! The heritage breed has been known to sell for five to six dollars per pound,” he explained.
As both farmers and consumers of locally grown organic food, Gillen’s family believes that no cost is too much. “We spend the majority of our money on food, and we never go to the doctor,” said Madeline, who is raising two boys (Gillen’s brother Jesse is 9 years old).
Ever since her mother died of cancer at 46, Madeline has been studying nutrition. When she met Nicolas at a vegetarian restaurant where they both worked in Atlanta, she was suffering from chronic fatigue. Nicolas introduced her to his mother, Helen Dumba, a nutritionist who has studied homeopathy ever since her own bout with cancer. Madeline credits Helen and her strict organic diet for the good health she enjoys today. Perhaps her son says it best: “The food is like medicine, except it tastes good.”
As the demand for organic food grows, Gillen is poised to meet it. He wants to introduce more heritage breeds to his farm and is currently researching goats. He knows it’s a team effort (“even grandma has to help”), so he discusses his plans with his family before moving forward with them.
For now, he is proud of his turkeys. He knows he’s saving an old breed from possible extinction and farming them the way that nature intended.
“When you see pictures of turkeys in the supermarket, you think of them running and flying and all happy in the woods, when they’re really in these factories where they’ve never seen daylight, they’ve never seen grass,” Gillon said.
At Crystal Organic Farm, this young farmer is changing that reality one turkey at a time.