Nearly seven months out from the start of the pandemic, local author, activist, artist, and Sandhills Sentinel contributor-turned-turkey farmer Stephanie Sellers is finally preparing for her big “lockdown project” to bear fruit. One misty late October afternoon, I step out onto her pasture in Cameron, where she greeted me with a sackful of apples.
“Apples are one of their favorites,” she explained as her flock cantered over to greet us. “But it’s the sunflower seeds that keep them loyal.” The hens politely gather around us in her grove of dogfennel and honeysuckle, watching us expectantly. It immediately became apparent that, despite their formidable size, it would be impossible for their small beaks to grab onto something with a surface area as large and smooth as an apple. I held my Granny Smith in my hand, at a complete loss for what to do.
Stephanie was kind enough to demonstrate her expert apple-delivery technique. This involved ripping chunks of apple off with her own teeth, which were then hurled or spat at the crowd at a great distance.
The idea was too fun not to try myself, though I had hardly a fraction of Stephanie’s range.
Stephanie Sellers’ turkeys eating tossed apples.
It began to rain, and Stephanie immediately dispelled the old piece of folk wisdom that insists turkeys are unintelligent enough to look up at rain droplets and drown themselves. “They’re incredibly smart birds — more so than any of the chickens I’ve raised or even the ducks. They keep predators away, forage for food on their own, and even hold their own morning “debates.” They’re especially drawn to the color red. My oldest — Big Tom —will wander through the flock to make sure that everybody’s eaten, before taking anything for himself.”
Although she has come to cherish her birds for their intellect and sociability, Stephanie is able to reconcile her fondness with their fate in the processing shed. “Ultimately, I’ve given them a better life than they would have had in a stockyard.” With mounting criticism of industrial farming and our collective alienation from the grim realities of meat production, Stephanie has even received requests for living turkeys, which families intend to process themselves. “I find it interesting that they’d take such an interest in this,” she says. “I suppose there’s a beautiful lesson in there.”
But there’s something beyond a spoilt life that separates Stephanie’s turkeys from the ones you would find at the grocery store. These are Bronze-breasted turkeys, a heritage breed completely unlike the common white-plumed, white meat stockyard turkeys. Bronze-breasted is the product of crossing domestic turkeys brought from England with wild North American turkeys, which produced a bird that was larger and more robust than the European turkeys, and tamer than wild turkeys. “I had Bronze-breasted at a friend’s table last year and just fell in love. It’s almost all dark meat. It’s just phenomenal.”
At the request of her friends of the North Carolina Tuscarora Nation, she collects their iridescent, copper and charcoal-banded primary feathers for ceremonial use, as the breed is prized show birds for their color. Stephanie cherishes her relationship with the Tuscarora Nation and has published several articles and books, including her most recent “The Exsanguination of the Second Society: Scholarly Historical Fiction Relating to Robeson County, North Carolina’s Tuscaroras,” which celebrate their history and expose their ongoing oppression in North Carolina. To find more of her current work, please visit https://stephsscribble.blogspot.com/.
If you are interested in purchasing a live or fully-dressed turkey, please contact Stephanie at [email protected].
Feature photo: Stephanie Sellers interacting with her turkeys in Cameron.
Article and photos by Sandhills Sentinel Reporter Shelby Herbert.