Turns out, California doesn't just produce happy cows. Thanks to the Diestel family, the free-range turkeys are pretty happy, too. At least until Thanksgiving.
A crisp afternoon drive through the country in late November. True blue skies etched with wispy clouds, fall-colored oaks, and the odd deer-crossing sign flank a sleepy two-laner winding up into yonder hills.
Sure, this could describe virtually any appetizing autumn weekend ride through Western hill country from Texas to Colorado to Idaho. But less than a week before Thanksgiving, the most succulent setting of them all hides a mite farther west in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. Specifically on Lyons Bald Mountain Road, a breezy back road noodling its way up from the former gold rush town of Sonora — and, eventually, through the open gates of the Diestel Turkey Ranch, where a bright yellow sign at the entrance reads “Happy Turkeys Ahead.”
Pull into a small parking lot by the ranch’s homey headquarters (a farmhouse converted into office space with a compact salesroom in the front) and you’ll notice a typical Diestel phenomenon. Turkeys flying out the door. All week. At one of the last small, family-owned turkey grower-processors in the country.
Meander down the road, and there they are. The whole gobbling welcoming committee for all to see. A chorus of free-range turkeys kicking back on plots of sunny green pasture dappled with shady trees in Sierra country. Turkeys just being their everyday garrulous turkey selves.
Are they as happy as the sign claims?
Even in a chirpy environment like this, it’s a somewhat qualified emotion for a cantankerous-looking holiday bird on the cusp of Thanksgiving.
But if you could talk turkey ... if you could ask these free-range, full-feathered, broad-breasted, slow-grown, vegetarian diet-fed, antibiotic-free, sustainably raised, 20-week-old Diestel turkeys grazing in California’s picturesque Tuolomne County (shared by Yosemite National Park nearby) to compare lifestyles with their mega-commodified cousins living about half that long in digs bearing no resemblance to this ... one might expect a content enough reply.
We’re relatively awesome, dude. Happy Thanksgiving!
Who’s even happier today? Smaller flocks of family visitors to the Diestel ranch — swooping in to pick up their holiday bird, enjoy the scenery, and get in some free turkey watching before next Thursday.
“You are some seriously odd-looking creatures,” a dad says to a posse of bronze-feathered Diestel heirlooms (descendants of the original wild North American turkey) staring right back at him and probably thinking the same thing. “But you’re very tasty,” he adds.
The measured response: a loud, quivery gobble in perfect unison.
Turkey aficionados can now find premium Diestel products throughout the Western United States and beyond — from Whole Foods Market to discerning restaurant menus. But it’s here, at the company’s pastoral birthplace and headquarters, where generations of locals have been making the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage for a Diestel bird since the family business opened shop in 1949, three generations ago. Or four if you count Uncle Ernest.
“The story of our ranch is really the story of our family,” says turkey farmer Heidi Diestel, whose parents Tim and Joan have run and grown the business since the 1980s. Before them, there was Grandpa Jack Diestel, who was mentored by Great Uncle Ernest Bottini back in the ’40s. Since then, the Diestel label has grown along with its turkey population, now raised on several properties throughout the area. Diestel turkey can be found from Seattle to San Diego to San Antonio — to Brooklyn, if you know where to look.
But like a Diestel turkey, company growth has been a careful, unhurried business.
“We started right here with the farming fundamentals of wanting to be the best and not the biggest, and that’s how we’re still set up,” Heidi says. “Our properties are smaller, more intimate and probably less economical — relatively speaking. It’s hard to compare our operation to those massive ones because they’re just so different.”
What distinguishes a Diestel turkey aside from that happy sign at the gate? According to the Diestels, it starts with their Four Family Secrets (not so secretly listed on the company website) that have comprised the company’s inviolable turkey ranching bill of rights from the get-go.
Secret No. 1: Walk the flock every day.
Secret No. 2: Provide a clean, free-range environment where a turkey can be a turkey.
Secret No. 3: Don’t rush it. Give the turkey time to grow with a natural vegetarian diet.
Secret No. 4: No shortcuts or compromises on quality. All the little things matter.
All clear enough — except perhaps for walking the flock.
“No, we don’t use leashes,” Heidi says. “One of the things that Uncle Ernest was so particular about was just walking amongst them. Being in their natural environment. Paying attention to their needs and really seeing the birds to ensure that they’re as healthy and happy as they need to be ... . Turkeys need a lot of TLC. At least ours do.”
“If you get your turkey here, you know where you’re getting your turkey from,” sums up Heidi’s older brother Jason, the ranch’s director of sustainability (among presumably many other hats), who joins us for a quick walk-the-flock demo session. “For us, it’s really important that our turkeys have access to the outdoors, clean water, and high-quality feed that enable the animal to thrive and grow the most natural way it can,” he adds. “And also for us to be as transparent as we can about the whole process here.”
What does director of sustainability mean at a grassroots family turkey ranch? Quite a lot, I learn, as the Diestel siblings lead me inside a large gated pasture where a flock of fully grown birds huddles (rather standoffishly, it seems at first) at the far end of the fence while we discuss the finer points of composting, water reclamation, and less wasteful methods of dealing with all the byproducts of raising tens of thousands of turkeys. Think of the feathers alone.
“The continued goal here is to make very special products with the standout breeds that we have while finding better, more progressive farming practices,” Jason says. “A lot of that has been established, and I think some of it is yet to come.”
Of course, this just leads to more turkey questions. Best fielded in a field full of happy turkeys.
“What’s the life span of a Diestel turkey?”
“We try to raise our birds as close to maturity as possible, slow growing them to between 20 and 24 weeks — or just shy of six months,” Jason says. “That’s when you start seeing the whole development of the bird and a fat layer under the skin, which makes it a lot juicier. It’s a considerably longer process here than the conventional 14-week commodity product where time is money if you’re selling a turkey as a loss leader at 99 cents a pound.”
“What’s the ideal diet for a happy turkey?”
Turns out, the Diestels rely on a filler-free vegetarian diet of grains milled right here on the ranch. “Turkeys are natural foragers,” Jason says, “so one of the feeding methods we apply here is called ‘free-choice feed,’ where turkeys get a loose meal that lets them choose what they want or need at any given time, as opposed to a pelletized all-in-one feeding system.”
As a result of their efforts, the Diestels’ pasture-raised turkeys have been designated GAP 5+, the highest rating awarded by the Global Animal Partnership. The “plus” means that the animal was harvested on the same ranch on which it was raised the entire time.
“What’s your favorite feedback from customers?”
“That our turkey really tastes like turkey,” Heidi says. “We get that all the time — and love hearing it.”
“Any expert tips when shopping for the perfect Thanksgiving bird?”
“First you have to decide what you’re really after,” Jason says. “The turkey or the price? You’ll want to try and be conscious of turkeys that have an added brine or salt solution in them — often to compensate moisture and flavor — and also where the turkey is coming from and the conditions in which it has been produced. One thing we always look at here is the ‘conformation’ of the bird. The way the turkey is filled out. Is it a beautiful, broad-breasted, fully matured turkey—which ours are known for — or does it have a narrow breast and look more like a bag of bones?”
I ask Jason what he sees as the future of the family’s business, four generations from now.
“I see us hopefully continuing to be a leader in our small world of turkey farming, where we’re really trying to champion this wonderful, high-quality product while helping people to understand where their food is coming from, know who their farmer is, and sign on to a more sustainable picture of family-owned agriculture. Growth for any business is always part of the plan, but for us it’s sustainable growth. We can’t outgrow our infrastructure or our network of farming partners. We try to be very cautious about new business because we don’t want to sacrifice what we’ve built over 65 years. We have to be good stewards of our brand and our family heritage.”
“Are turkeys ... friendlier than they look?”
This last question slips out when I suddenly notice that we’re surrounded by turkeys. Those “standoffish” birds sunning themselves at the far end of the pasture are now gathered around us like a gobbling flash mob. This is what walking the flock must feel like.
“You can pat them and even hold them when they’re mellow,” Jason says.
“They can be quite curious and welcoming,” Heidi adds. “Turkeys are funny animals. They love to be together, but have issues with it at the same time. They want their space, but they don’t want to be too far apart.”
Hmm. That could describe another animal species I’m far more familiar with.
“These ones will probably be with us a little longer — until around Christmas,” Jason says.
The measured response among the flock? Another loud, quivery gobble in perfect unison. A somewhat relieved one? Hard to interpret. But by all counts it looks like a very happy Thanksgiving weekend lies ahead.
From the November/December 2015 issue.