The Mustard Seed members’ sourcing priorities guide what products we stock at the Co-op. “Ethical Animal Practices” is one of our core values because we know that consuming meat involves an animal giving its life to feed us. We therefore have a responsibility to know the conditions that animal experienced. Lynda, our meat buyer, and other Co-op members have been visiting farmers to see their operations first-hand.
Donald J. (Buck) Ross is a fourth-generation farmer in Mapleton Township, Wellington County (north of Waterloo, about 100km from the Co-op). He’s been raising turkeys for over twenty-five years. We spent two hours visiting Buck’s farms, seeing his free-range turkeys, and discussing the challenges of sustainably farming in central Ontario.
Ross Enterprises is the only licensed non-organic turkey producer in Ontario allowed to range turkeys outdoors. Poultry production in Ontario is highly controlled by various marketing boards, including Turkey Farmers of Ontario. A licence, called “quota,” is required to produce more than 50 turkeys on any one farm in Ontario. The history of quota is complicated, but the marketing boards were formed as a tool to protect Canadian farmers and consumers through three pillars: ensuring a stable supply to market, setting fair prices through cost-of-production formulas, and monitoring the border import practices of foreign industrial producers. Over the past forty-five years, Ontario’s system has itself become industrialized, leading many consumers to seek poultry that seems more natural, including having access to the outdoors. This is how Buck’s family has always raised their turkeys – so when the rules changed to keep birds inside full-time, they went to court and won the right to let their turkeys out. Now his farms are the only commercial quota-holding producers allowed to grow free-range turkeys.
The turkeys we saw in were sheltered in a number of different barns on the Ross’ farms, the oldest dating from 1883. The early November rains were steady when we visited, so most birds were staying indoors. But being naturally curious, they came outside to inspect our group. While their feed and water are indoors, they are free to roam the outdoor, fenced barnyards anytime to catch the sun and feel the wind. Buck pointed out that their combs are much deeper coloured than barn-raised birds due to increased melanin levels from sunshine. As Buck says, fresh air is the best thing for the turkeys after clean water and healthy food.
Buck’s turkeys are commercial birds fed a ration of ground conventional corn, soybean meal, and wheat, with added flaxseed to increase Omega-3s in the meat. He sends the grain he grows on his 1,000 acres to Wallenstein Feed & Supply where they pool local grains and grind all the feed for his turkeys. The feed is not organic, but it is all locally grown.
Buck went on to explain that his rations are vegetarian–just grains, flaxseed, and minerals. He doesn’t feed his turkeys any animal by-products such as feather, blood, or bone meals–ingredients high in nitrogen and amino acids which are commonly blended in commercial rations in order to cut the costs of increasing their protein content. He says feeding animal by-products back to animals isn’t worth the risks–as was realized with BSE in the 1980s. He says sticking with a grain ration adds 15-30% to his costs of production, but he thinks it’s worth it.
Buck Ross is a classic innovator, constantly thinking about how to solve problems in a sustainable while profitable manner to ensure his family’s farming tradition can continue with his young granddaughter’s generation. Whether it’s the solar panels they’ve erected (the farm is energy-positive for hydro), the Bio-En Power bio-gas facility in Elmira he helped start (displaced 70,000 tonnes of organic waste from landfill), or the oats, radish, and turnips he’s testing as winter cover crops, adaptation is always on his mind. Which makes for a great conversation on a Saturday afternoon, or an evening next summer with a beer on their dock.
So this holiday season, we’re pleased to offer Uncle Buck’s turkeys at the Co-op having found out more about how and where they were raised. You can place your order today in store or online, but act quickly – the order deadline is December 4th as Buck’s turkeys sell out fast.