SANBORNTON — The last full week before Thanksgiving is always a fretful and busy time for Monique Lebrecque, owner of Hermit Brook Farm. Late November is when she is about to be rewarded for the months of labor and dollars invested into her turkey flock. It's also the time of year when the predators of her neck of the woods are instinctively fattening up for the long winter ahead. Black bears are a primary concern, and they're why she stops allowing the birds to peck throughout her green, grassy fields and keeps them in an enclosure that is secured by wire fencing, an electrified fence and a pair of vigilant Anatolian shepherd guard dogs.
"The last two weeks is when I've lost the most of them," she said. But, with no breaches of security this year, she was happy to begin the processing of her flock at the end of the last week prior to Thanksgiving. Each of her 200 birds will be slaughtered on site by herself. Each bird will be dispatched, defeathered, placed in a chill tank to cool it down, then eviscerated, back in the chill tank, then bagged and placed in a cooler.
Labrecque has been raising turkeys for meat for more than two decades and she estimates she'll be able to complete the entire process in about 12 hours, completed just in time for Sunday morning, when the driveway at the end of a long dirt road on the back side of this rural town will be filled with customers queued up to acquire the crown jewel of their holiday feast. The customers, most of whom have done business with Labrecque for years, will happily pay $4 per pound for their turkey, which will fall somewhere in the range of 12 to 30 pounds.
Despite the welcome influx of revenue Labrecque will realize on Sunday — after all, many of the birds will fetch more than $100, and she has 200 of them to sell — she said raising the flock is more about a way of life than it is a means to profit. "You don't make what people think you should make," she insisted. The price of grain is her main opponent when it comes to turning a profit. Her flock consumes up to 300 pounds of feed per day, and while she remembers paying $16 per 100-pounds of grain not too long ago, the diversion of the country's corn crop to ethanol production has doubled the price of feed grain.
The turkeys have been at Hermit Brook Farm since July, when Labrecque purchased them as poults. There were years during the previous decade that she ordered as many as 700 poults to raise on her farm, many of which would be purchased by companies to give as holiday gifts to employees. Those orders dried up with the recession, and although the corporate customers haven't returned, she's seen demand start to pick up again as more and more consumers are interested in eating food produced by a person they know and by practices they find appealing.
During most of the growing season, when the bears are busy with berries, Labrecque's turkeys are free to roam through her fields. Because she's meticulous about keeping their environment clean, she doesn't need to add antibiotics to their feed. As a result, her customers regularly tell her that the turkeys are the best they've ever tasted, even though the breed she raises — broad-breasted white — isn't genetically different from the turkeys available at any supermarket. All but a few of her turkeys this year are already reserved by customers — call 286-4121 to see if there are any still available — and she said she plans to increase the size of her flock next year.
Labrecque has been farming on Plummer Hill Road for 21 years, though she's only the most recent farmer to raise food on that land — the farmhouse she's living in was built in 1788, and many of its prior residents are buried in a plot that overlooks her pasture. She was born and raised in Salem, Mass., in a more suburban environment though at the end of a dead-end street where her family had chickens and horses. "I always wanted to grow my own food," she said. Agriculture started as a self-sustaining venture for her, though it quickly spiraled into a commercial affair when friends and family kept asking if they could buy the fruits of her labors. She plans to keep it up, even though the rising price of grain has dramatically reduced her profitability. "I like farming and I've never really been motivated by money."
Come Thanksgiving, hundreds of families will be sitting down to a meal made possible by Hermit Brook Farm. Her customers find various ways to prepare the bird. Some fry them, most roast them, a few swear by cooking them breast-side down. Lately, brining seems to be spreading among home chefs like a new religion, said Labrecque. She doesn't get too fussy, though. "I just stick it in my woodstove," she said. Not too long after her dinner, her phone starts ringing again. It'll be her customers, praising her for providing the best bird their guests have ever eaten, and many will ask to reserve a bird for next Thanksgiving.
CAPTION for TURKEYS MONIQUE in AA:
Monique Lebrecque, of Hermit Brook Farm in Sanbornton, checks on her flock of turkeys. She's been raising turkeys for Thanksgiving feasts for 21 years. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)
CAPTION for TURKEY HEADS in AA:
Hermit Brook Farm in Sanbornton raised 200 turkeys this year, though had raised as many as 700 in the early 2000s. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)