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A Taste of the Good Life on an Organic Turkey Farm


Katherine Anderson treats the 53 turkeys on her ranch as if they were pets — with affection, good humor and tender loving care. 


Katherine Anderson treats the 53 turkeys on her ranch as if they were pets — with affection, good humor and tender loving care.

But in a couple of weeks, she’ll begin slaughtering every one of them by hand, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Anderson is the owner of Blue Oak Ranch, a 3-year-old organic poultry farm in Goleta, and she goes to great lengths to make sure the herd of birds is happy.

Instead of living in cages, her turkeys roam upon an open field, grazing on grass and bugs. The birds are regularly treated to the protein-laden milk of Anderson’s prize-winning goats, which are also raised on the farm.

When Anderson turns off the electric fence and joins the birds out on the field, the fretful flock rushes toward her and gobbles in unison, behaving almost like a single organism — perhaps a dog happy to see its owner.

As the hens peck playfully at her blue jeans and fingers, the males — known as toms — thrust out their chests and strut about. When Anderson chuckles fondly at these gender-based displays of curiosity and bluster, the raucous rafter of turkeys responds by gobbling again, with all the controlled rise and fall of a laugh track. 


"I really like poultry," said Anderson, 37, who also works part-time at Island Seed & Feed  in Goleta. "It’s an odd hobby to get into, but there are worse addictions."

At the end of the day, though, these birds are not pets. They are food for others, and livelihood for her. So her desire to keep the birds happy "up until the day they go" is really less about fowl affection than it is about sound business practice.

As a result, it doesn’t take long for Anderson’s turkey talk to veer from why the birds are so lovable to how good they taste.


"They’re actually very juicy, not mushy — not squishy and flabby — the way the store-bought turkeys are," she said while feeding her flock. Turning to the turkeys, she added: "Aren’t you?" They gobbled in agreement.

Put another way, a happy bird is a tasty bird, she says. A bird that lives a miserable life will exact its revenge after death.

Transporting turkeys in large trucks, for instance, instills fear and panic, which raises the levels of adrenaline, which then seeps into the meat.

For this reason, Anderson doesn’t send her birds away to meet their maker. Instead, she carries them — one at a time — out to the "processing deck," a small cluster of trees toward a corner of the farm.

"You have to make sure the knife is sharp," she said.

Instead of chopping off their heads — which, again, is bad for the meat, because the body flops around — she slits their throats.

"It’s pretty humane," she said. "Their blood pressure drops immediately, and they don’t feel anything."


After the dirty deed, which Anderson tries to time within hours of a customer pickup, she lays the lifeless turkey in a bucket of ice. She advises customers to store the bird in a refrigerator for several days, but never the freezer.

"A lot of people have no idea how old their bird from the supermarket can be," she said. "They can be six months to two years dead. These guys are dead just long enough to have the meat age well."

Because the birds are not killed in a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, Anderson cannot sell them to distributors.

As a small organic poultry farmer, Anderson, who runs the operation with her boyfriend, Shawn Erickson, can sell the birds only to the individuals who will cook them. Mostly these are families willing to shell out roughly $80 for a locally bred organic turkey, as opposed to the approximately $20 for the store-bought fare. (The cost is assessed on a per-pound basis at Blue Oak; $5 for the toms and $7 for the hens.)

Located near the intersection of Glen Annie and Cathedral Oaks roads, the six-acre farm includes fruit trees and a pond. It is bordered by brown hillside to the north, a golf course to the west, and Dos Pueblos High’s football stadium to the south.

To do Anderson’s job is to be extremely close to nature — sometimes uncomfortably so.

{mosimage}In addition to being plagued by drought-like conditions this year, Blue Oak Ranch is bedeviled by all manner of predators, saboteurs and plunderers: rodents, hawks, owls, bobcats, the neighbor’s dog — even homeless people from a nearby encampment, she said.

Guarding the ranch are two dogs that couldn’t be more ferocious — or sweet.

Named Shiran and Ziya, the dogs are of a staggering specimen: Anatolian shepherds, a more than 6,000-year-old guardian breed that originated in the Anatolian Plateau in — appropriately enough — Turkey.

Shiran is a 150-pound puppy whose sprint can reach the speed of 25 mph, Anderson said.

"I can fit my entire head in his mouth," she said, petting him as he licked her face and wagged his tail. "It raises the hair on your arms to see these guys spring into action."


In a sense, poultry farming is in Anderson’s blood. Her father, an attorney by trade, raised chickens and other animals in Orange County when she was a child.

A self-described private person, Anderson was reluctant to discuss much else about her past, other than to say that she obtained her undergraduate degree at UCSB. She would not say what the degree was in, nor would she say where she earned her master’s degree.

She also asked not to be photographed head-on.

But, camera shy as she is, Anderson doesn’t mind talking at length about her love of organic food, and, in her opinion, how it beats the stuffing out of the fodder a person gets from the supermarket.

"Good food is raised well, is cared for well," she said. "These animals are not mass-produced, they’re not crowded. And these guys are tasty."

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