Rebecca Martinez – ROVING REPORTER
STAUNTON — One sure way to avoid a long, messy thawing process in the days before Thanksgiving is to buy a turkey that’s never been frozen.
It’s a selling point for Guy Freesen, who does the dirty work of processing his turkeys at Charis Eco-Farm in Staunton.
Since Friday, customers (including me) have stopped by the farm in the afternoon to pick up turkeys that had been alive that morning.
“It’s a messy operation. You’re gonna get bloody and get your hands into everything, but … usually people are quite happy to help out. I usually barter for food or some other aspect,” said Freesen, who relies on volunteer helpers during the busy times before holidays.
“It’s usually the educational aspect they’re most after,” he added. “Most people don’t get to put their hands upon a chicken or a turkey or whatever and be a part of processing that food item.”
Melissa West of Harrisonburg, 13-month-old daughter Helena strapped to her back, rolled up her sleeves to pluck a turkey carcass hanging from a hook above a steel table. She said she wants to know where her food comes from.
“I actually was a lot more nervous about what it was gonna be like. It’s not that bad,” West said. “A little more blood involved, but I try not to look at that. He has a pretty good system going here.”
That system starts when Freesen hauls the turkeys, one or two at a time, to three inverted metal cones placed over a bucket. They muscle the birds in, upside down, and pull their heads through the opening, where they cut the birds’ throats.
After each turkey bleeds out, it’s placed in a barrel of hot water, to scald it and loosen the feathers.
Then, the bird goes into the plucker, a rotating metal tub filled with rubber fingers that coax the feathers from the carcass.
The workers then hang the turkey by the feet from poultry hooks above a steel table. Some pick off excess fat and feathers while more experienced workers cut out the entrails. They set aside feet for resale. Livers and hearts and gizzards are cleaned and bagged with the bird, which is put on ice until the customer arrives for it.
Marc Curry, 13, of Staunton, who had visited the farm during a home schooling field trip and wanted to return to process the birds, cleaned gizzards and plucked feathers without flinching. His uncle, Dwayne Rhodes, said he was happy to accompany him during the day.
“I think it’s good to see, especially for young people, to see how food gets to your table,” he said.
A former Methodist minister, Freesen took up farming in 1999. He moved his wife and four children from Illinois to Staunton.
“I never touched a bird in my life before that,” he said. “I wanted to be in control of our food source.”
Freesen, his wife, Sue, and their four children raise and sell pasture-grazed pork, beef, lambs and poultry that don’t contain hormones, nitrates, MSG or preservatives.
That kind of attention comes with a price tag. A customer could buy a frozen turkey at Food Lion this week for less than $1 per pound. Freesen’s customers have pre-ordered about 75 fresh turkeys this holiday, raging from 15 to 30 pounds each, at about $5 per pound.
“It does cost more, but they want to support that and make it a sustainable enterprise.”