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Flagstaff-raised turkeys mean special Thanksgiving

Flagstaff-raised turkeys mean special Thanksgiving

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For four Doney Park-area families, Thanksgiving preparations began weeks ago, on a warm November morning at Connie and Nick Lipinski’s farm. The group of seven, most of whom are parents of children in the local 4-H club, gathered for what has become a pre-holiday season tradition at the Lipinski household: an annual butchering of turkeys raised by families around the area. 

While millions of Americans will turn to grocery store freezers and refrigerators for their Thanksgiving bird, these families are among a sliver of the population that raises and processes their own turkey for this day of feasting.

Those at the Lipinskis said they have come to love raising the birds, describing them as talkative, beautiful and endearing, and like the fact that they know what goes into the meat they will be serving to their friends and families.

But above all, it’s the taste.

There is nothing like it, Connie Lipinski said.

“It’s like turkey gravy, only it’s the turkey,” she said.

Full circle

While Connie Lipinski has been butchering turkeys for more than three decades, this year was a first for Tyler Allenbaugh, who owns Flagstaff Family Farm with his wife Patty. The two started the farm this year and have built up a robust collection of animals, though the turkeys were a bit of an impulse buy, he said.

Their only male turkey was up first for butchering on the October afternoon when Allenbaugh invited this reporter to tag along. The bird was destined to be eaten for Halloween celebrations, but Allenbaugh said he would be going through the same process with his two other females later in the year.

Following instructions he watched on YouTube, he worked the turkey, appropriately named Tom, into a used feed bag with a hole cut in the end. As Allenbaugh struggled to stuff the 50-pound bird into the tight quarters, the other animals formed a peanut gallery of sorts, the ducks quacking and the goats trying to nibble on the bag.  

Then it was off to a tree where Allenbaugh hung the bird by its feet on a sturdy branch. Allowing the blood to drain to its head would make the bird go catatonic and make the whole process less painful, he said.

A few minutes later, Allenbaugh was crouched over Tom, the bird’s head resting on a stump. With one blow of the ax he severed the main part of the turkey's neck, sending him quickly toward death.

After that, it took less than an hour for Allenbaugh to steep the bird in hot water, pluck his feathers and carefully gut the bird. The head, feet, feathers, bones and unusable organs will get buried in the soil to recycle those nutrients.

“They have lived a good life and they get to give back by replenishing our soils,” Allenbaugh said. “That to me is super important. It’s like a full circle.”

After raising the bird day after day, being beside him as he grew, killing Tom wasn’t easy, Allenbaugh said. The first time he killed one of his birds, he cried.

At the same time, the experience of killing something he raised and then being able to feed it to friends and family produces a feeling of fulfillment he hopes everyone gets to experience.

“For me it’s not harsh at all, I feel such a sense of thankfulness and gratitude to the bird and to the process,” he said. “We were made to be a part of this food system. I personally feel I’m doing it right.”

A social affair

Those who gathered at the Lipinski farm shared a similar sentiment of doing right by the birds.

Though the task was different, many aspects of the butchering mirrored Thanksgiving Day itself. Those in attendance spent the hours chatting about their children, working together around the table and standing back to admire the beauty and the bounty at hand. In all, they worked through 13 turkeys and two geese.

“There’s a sense of gratefulness and remorse with any animal you butcher,” said Katelyn Lilly, as she watched the process unfold.

Instead of Allenbaugh’s ax method, these turkeys were situated on a stump, their necks hanging down to where Nick Lipinski could, with a flick of a well-practiced wrist, reach inside their beaks and slit the jugular veins.

The first few minutes were calm until the birds realized they were being bled to death and sprung into action. They heaved, thrashed, beat their wings and kicked their feet, doing everything they could to escape their fate before finally going limp. Working together husband and wife Jody and Jimmy Hicks strained to restrain the biggest birds.

“It’s holding on for dear life,” Jimmy Hicks said as he gripped the bird between his legs.

After the birds were dead, the group picked out the choice feathers, some a striking brown and white and others with a bronze sheen, to be given to Native Americans for ceremonial use and for arrows.

A quick plunge in scalding hot water loosened the birds’ feathers, making pulling them out a bit like picking handfuls of grass. With birds that were fully defeathered, Lipinski fell easily into the final task. A veteran leader of the local 4-H club, she pulled up a chair and began walking through the bird’s anatomy, pulling out lungs, heart and undeveloped eggs from a female turkey.

Though it's a process these 4-H families have done often, raising the birds, then handling them from life through death makes for an intimate connection. They try not to get too attached, though, Jody Hicks said.

The only names she gives her turkeys? Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

“It’s like turkey gravy, only it’s the turkey."

--Connie Lipinski

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