The football game gets going around 1 p.m., and the turkeys are in the oven. But it’s not just any game. And these aren’t just any turkeys. The players —
The football game gets going around 1 p.m., and the turkeys are in the oven. But it’s not just any game. And these aren’t just any turkeys. The players — some 30 to 40 folks whose ages range from 12 to 65 — are farmers, family, and friends who’ve gathered on the historic property at Sherrill’s Inn in Fairview, with a gorgeous glimpse of the Blue Ridge behind them. They play two-hand touch. “Razzle-dazzle is what we call it,” says Jamie Ager, the fourth generation of his family to farm the valley at Hickory Nut Gap. “It gets competitive.”
That may be the case. But surely the winning play of the day is later in the evening, after everyone has cleaned up and the birds are served at Thanksgiving dinner. They are the Agers’ own turkeys: Broad-Breasted Whites, pasture-raised at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. This year, the Agers raised about 700 turkeys.
Broad-Breasted Whites are a common, big-chested breed that’s prized on holiday tables around the country. But the birds at Hickory Nut Gap Farm are different. They don’t plump up in large warehouse-style barns like conventionally raised turkeys. The birds are moved around a pasture when young, and are allowed to roam the pasture and eat freely when older. They get plenty big by Thanksgiving, says Farm Manager Walker Sides, “but not so much that they don’t want to move.” They strut and peck, dining on a diet of insects, orchard grass, smartweed, fescue, and alfalfa — as Jamie puts it, “All the good stuff.”
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The “good stuff” is something of a guiding principle at Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which practices regenerative farming — a method that works to increase soil health, encourage biodiversity, and nurture the land for future generations. By foraging, for instance, the turkeys help fertilize the field and suppress unwanted pests, like fly larvae. The practice is good for the land and good for the birds.
Jamie became interested in sustainable agriculture “as a young idealistic person” while studying at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. But he draws from a progressive farming font that runs much deeper. His great-grandparents James and Elizabeth McClure founded Hickory Nut Gap Farm in 1918. Elizabeth tended to Sherrill’s Inn, the historic home at the center of the property, and James was a minister. In 1920, he and other local farmers established what became the Farmer’s Federation Cooperative, which helped them pool resources and support one another.
A century later, a thread connects some ideas of the federation, which ended in the 1960s, to the farm’s current focus on meats. In 2000, Jamie and Amy Frey (now Ager) began pasture-raising turkeys and chickens to sell locally. They also direct-marketed some of the beef and pork raised by Jamie’s mother, Annie, before starting their own herd. “We were lucky,” Jamie says. “We were close to Asheville and markets interested in that process.”
In 2015, the Agers founded Hickory Nut Gap Meats. The company buys beef and pork from other like-minded farmers in addition to raising its own. Like the work of the Farmer’s Federation, Hickory Nut Gap Meats pools resources — in this case, offering marketing and distribution for close to 100 family farms across the region under the Hickory Nut Gap Meats label. Partner farms adhere to strict standards, including harvesting animals that have never been given antibiotics or hormones. Cattle are 100 percent grass-fed, and heritage pigs root among open pastures and forests.
Such practices are on display at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. The Agers welcome folks to the property for agritourism and special events. And a drive down Sugar Hollow Road brings many of the animals into full view for anyone passing by. In November, barrel-chested turkeys can be spotted toddling about their pasture. “They get so big before harvest,” Amy says. “The neighbors are always commenting on them.”
In some years, comments have included calls to the farm to say that a turkey or two has escaped. “They love roads because they have shiny things in them,” Sides says. He relays an old farming adage: “Turkeys wake up in the morning and try to find a new way to die.” They jump into things while trying to catch a fly. They wander into roads. They’ll follow a sparkle, anywhere. Turkeys will trot after people if they have something shiny on them, too. According to Sides, one farm intern “felt like he was being followed by paparazzi” because the turkeys were trailing after him.
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At Hickory Nut Gap Farm, it’s the turkeys that are closely watched and anticipated. Along with chickens, they are one of the farm’s seasonal offerings, only available at the Farm Store — a barn-like building stocked with fresh and frozen meats, free-range eggs, and other local goods. Jamie estimates that 90 percent of Hickory Nut Gap’s turkeys are sold to folks in western North Carolina. “They are the most direct-to-consumer thing we do,” he says.
Raised for three and a half months, the birds are butchered on-site at the shop — and all are reserved and accounted for well before Thanksgiving. “We have to order our own turkeys to make sure we [have one] for our own Thanksgiving,” Amy says.
For the feast among some 50 relatives at Sherrill’s Inn, where Annie and John Ager reside, two turkeys are prepared by different family members. There’s also usually a ham or leg of lamb, and side dishes aplenty. People spread out to eat in the dining room, living room, main-floor bedroom, and study, with the youngest kids all happily sequestered in a room together. They mark the fifth generation present at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. “It’s a very big party,” Jamie says. “With turkeys.”
In the historic inn, built in 1834, it would be easy to revel in the past. But the family members gathered here clearly have eyes set on the future. Much of the surrounding land, jointly owned among relatives, is under a conservation easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. And the farm is a model of sustainable agriculture, striving for healthy land, animals, and people. There’s much to anticipate among the fields, including next year’s razzle-dazzle — and, of course, a new brood of buxom birds.print it