Editor’s note: This story, “Crazy Hart Ranch owner bucks odds to raise heirloom turkeys” originally ran in the Fall 2015 issue of Florida Food & Farm.
When it comes to providing a fresh, local, farm-raised heritage turkey for family holiday gatherings, Floridians essentially have two options: breed them yourselves, or try to find a producer who does.
You’ll be only slightly more successful searching farms than raising your own. Only a handful of farms in the state have successfully produced heritage breeds and stuck with it – despite the pitfalls.
Even fewer let you order a bird for the holidays while they’re growing, or visit them on the ranch.
In Southeast Florida, Crazy Hart Farm in Fellsmere is among those that will, and owner Linda Hart is a one-woman operation specializing in Narragansetts. She has been a USDA- and Florida Department of Agriculture-certified poultry producer since 2007.
Raised on a farm in Texas, Hart earned a nursing degree when family members urged her to find another calling. But after moving here in 1995 for a job, she soon started missing farm life.
“I can do this!”
“I read Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm and said to myself, ‘I can do this!’ So I started dabbling in chickens and selling eggs in Vero Beach at the little market in Pocahontas Park. Then I raised some meat chickens, under the table, and tried to see if there was any interest in turkeys — around 2005-06.
“There definitely was, so I pursued getting production up and found a processing plant.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture came down on her as an illegal producer. “It took six to eight months to go through licensing procedures. I didn’t fit in any boxes, because I’m a small farm, and I’m raising, processing and selling out of one facility,” Hart says.
She started small, with Americana chickens and Welsh harlequin ducks, selling eggs from both fowl initially at local farmers markets. Later, she was encouraged – by prominent local chef Michael Landers, formerly of The Moorings Club, and later through his farmer-chef summits – to raise poultry for meat.
So Hart built flocks – getting chicks from hatcheries out of state – and in 2008, her first full year in business, she had 1,000 chickens, including broilers and laying Cornish Cross game hens.
The next year, she doubled her flock and won one of three Florida Innovative Farmer Awards at the Florida Small Farmers’ Conference sponsored by the University of Florida and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.
Since then, though, she’s cut back on chicken production. She stopped using a processing plant in Ocala, because of cost and inconvenience, and bought her own processing equipment. It’s a learning curve and, she admits, “I don’t have the process down.”
Crazy Hart Ranch raises the oldest recognized breed of turkey
At the same time, Hart has geared up turkey production and is proud of the flock she nurtures on her 5 acres. “Narragansetts are the oldest breed recognized by the American Poultry Association.” She claims they’re also much tastier than commercial birds.
These turkeys are named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the breed was developed.
“Narragansetts are slower-growing. Commercial birds take 16 weeks. When you grow something fast, it’s almost, like, diluted. When you have birds out in the pasture, it adds to their flavor. Mine absolutely have a more natural diet,” Hart says.
Hers roost under and in three big oak trees behind her house and in a fenced, protected 1-acre pasture, taking six to eight months to mature. Hart feeds them a high-protein, traditional grain mixture of corn, soy, alfalfa meal, oats, fish meal and a vitamin/mineral pack.
“There are no hormones, no antibiotics. You don’t need to use that kind of stuff if you take care of your birds,” Hart notes.
Difficult to raise
“Turkeys are hard to do if you don’t know what you’re doing. They are real delicate as babies. If you don’t keep them really warm, meticulously clean, dry and well-fed, they will fall over dead in no time.”
That, plus predation, discourages others. A farm in Myakka City, with a flock of 100, halted turkey production in 2014 after losing 25 as poults (young fowl) and 60 more to bobcats and coyotes.
“I’ve got 150 birds right now,” Hart says. “I usually try to do 200, but it just didn’t work out this year. That means I’m going to be short.
“Sixteen turkeys that are my breeding stock are separate. Every bird I sell off this farm, they’ve never left this farm. I go out and pick up the eggs, I put them in an incubator, and I hatch them out. That’s how I retain control of my quality.”
Having no employees, she relies on volunteers and itinerant helpers, and harvest time in mid-November is a party. “I actually have a pool of volunteers, and we kind of make a celebration out of it, bring food, and they come in for several days.”
She butchers all her meat turkeys from Crazy Hart Ranch at that time. Because of her smaller flock this year, she said, “If you want a turkey for Christmas, you’d better order before Thanksgiving.”
Want a turkey from Crazy Hart Ranch?
Crazy Hart Ranch heritage turkeys sell for $10 a pound, processed; a $40 nonrefundable deposit is required. Stock is limited and sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Order by phone or email: 772-913-0036; [email protected]