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October 23, 2012

Let’s talk turkey. Who better than with Mary Pitman! Maybe you don’t know her by that name, but I’ll bet you’ve heard of Mary’s Turkeys. Mary Pitman is Mary’s Turkeys…and what she doesn’t know about raising and cooking turkeys would fit into the beak of one of her turkeys. Just ask any of the thousands of people who call her hotline every year.
Mary and her husband Rich, a third-generation poultry farmer, live near Fresno, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. “We came out with Mary’s Free-Range Turkeys in 1998.” The exact day was their 25th wedding anniversary. Five years later, they came out with Mary’s Organic Turkeys and Mary’s Heritage Turkeys. The exact day? Their 30th anniversary! “My husband says some women get diamonds for their anniversary; I get companies named after me!”

Since then, Mary has been very thankful that a Colorado-based organic and natural food store chain, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, took a chance on them. Customers of the regional chain---33 stores located in four states---can place their orders online for pick-up at a nearby store. Because of the cost of shipping, and the time involved, Mary no longer ships turkeys to individuals. (If you live outside Natural Grocers’ market, visit Mary’s website to locate a store near where you live.)

The same year the Pitmans introduced their organic and heritage turkeys to Natural Grocers and their customers was busy for another reason: They opened their own processing plant, insuring better quality control of their turkeys, chickens and ducks. In the future, they hope to re-open the feed mill once owned by Rich’s dad, and, in effect, will lower the cost of organic feed for their operation. Those costs from outside sources have tripled.
Mary and Rich have found the perfect niche for themselves. As they were able, they bought ranches where they raise all of their turkeys. Organic turkeys, 20,000 to 30,000 of them, are raised apart from Heritage and free-range birds, in accordance with strict USDA standards that tell customers, loud and clear, they’re buying a food they can trust. More and more health-conscious shoppers rely on farmers and ranchers like the Pitmans for the foods we all want to serve our families and loved ones, rather than on corporate food factory food.

Though their thousands of Heritage turkeys are presently not raised according to organic standards, they’re not given antibiotics or hormones. Eventually, they hope to raise the breed as certified organic turkeys. But what exactly is a Heritage turkey?

Mary will tell you they’re America’s original, authentic turkey, having brown feathers and the ability to fly. They’re known for having more thigh meat and less breast meat, and they’re a favorite of chefs. “When we came out with the Heritage turkeys, my phone rang 12 hours a day. This is like the ‘new-old’ turkey, and the original.”
Mary will also tell you that, about 12 years ago, there were only about 100 left in the whole country. Their future looked grim, extinction a real possibility. A movement got underway to increase Heritage turkey herds throughout the U.S., and Mary and Rich recognized an opportunity to provide an outstanding---delicious and healthy---turkey for their customers’ enjoyment.

In total, there are eight varieties. Mary raises four or five, including the Narragansett and Bourbon Reds. However, her customers can't specify which variety when they order. “They all run and fly so I don’t label them,” she says, “to keep the costs down. It takes time to sort through each variety.” She has done her homework on the subject, though, and has been unable to pick up on any taste difference among the varieties.

Mary’s customers, new and old, love the taste of her turkeys, whether they’re free-range, organic, or Heritage. Raised in the great outdoors, the birds impart a substantial taste difference from factory turkeys, which are raised away from the outdoors, in confinement. Bottom line? It’s all about eating healthy---not only for herself, her husband, children, grandchildren, but for her customers, as well.

While they own all of the turkey ranches, Mary and Rich contract with local farmers who raise chickens and ducks for them. “We feel so blessed that we can keep ourselves and other families in the Valley going.”

“We have very high quality turkeys,” Mary says. “We are known for customer service and quality. People love the fact that we are persons and not an answering machine.”
Callers by the thousands can and do talk turkey with Mary any time of the year on their hotline, but she starts getting more calls around this time of the year as customers gear up for that all-important, traditional meal on Thanksgiving. That day, she’ll get between 200 and 300 calls, beginning in the wee hours of the morning. When son David married, he told Hillari, his bride-to-be, that she would have to agree to cook the family turkey dinner since his Mom would be busy on the hotline most of the day. When the calls finally slow down in late afternoon, Mary heads to David and Hillari’s house for the family get-together.

Quick turkey tips

Mary’s website contains how-to videos on cooking a turkey and inserting a thermometer.

One of the key tips (probably the most frequent question she’s asked) has to do with how to tell when the turkey is done. Mary emphasizes: Please use a thermometer. Every oven is different. Once the turkey is no longer pink, it’s done. Cookbooks say to cook it twice as long.

Pull the turkey out when the thermometer reaches 165 degrees, and let it rest for 15-20 minutes for a wide-breasted turkey before you slice it.

For a Heritage turkey, remove it when the temperature shows 155 degrees.

“We want people to have a great experience with their turkeys,” Mary says.