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Humane Farming: Behind the scenes with a photographer, a rancher, and the runaway turkeys

By Anne Hamersky, Photographer

Dede Boies raises organic poultry and pork at Root Down Farm, a Central California coastal ranch an hour south of San Francisco. She breeds, feeds, houses, and harvests a collection of livestock with an eye (and heart) to humane husbandry and sustainable practices.

I’m shooting a grand scale installation about food and farming for my local historic farmers market, and Dede agrees to be a part. We set a date. I drive down the rugged San Mateo shoreline, maneuver Devil’s Slide, then inland beyond quaint Pescadero. I find Root Down Farm — a curving valley surrounded by low mountains with a long wedge of quiet sky and grassy beige fields. With an invitation to stay the night in a tiny cabin between flower field and new barn, I am in heaven.

Dede and wife are generous family people. They are expecting a child themselves and were off at a wedding. Dede gave me the OK to wander the fields before they were due to arrive back home. I park my car and look around. I say hi to the resident apprentice who is expecting me and my cameras. I see a turkey pen smack in the middle of the distant field. I sling a camera on, open the gate to take a closer look.

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and the turkeys are growing to full size. As in big. And strong. And inquisitive. The flock wants to see, right now, this newcomer in their field. With two feet just inside the gate, and still thinking how maybe I should go get an additional lens, I see their minimal enclosure bend dangerously close to the ground.

My jaw drops. No way is the electricity in that puny fence strong enough to send any kind of STOP command through their thick insulating feathers. Within an instant, the entire flock is a puffed up red, blue, glittery black regiment crossing over the wires to trot free-free-free directly toward me at full and fast speed. I am two parts mortified, two parts frozen curiosity, two parts guilt-ridden (this must be my fault), two parts scared shitless and two parts excited to shoot the unfolding melee. I have never been closer to this many turkeys, let alone full grown turkeys, let alone full grown, organic, pasture raised, independently minded, strong willed turkeys.

You think a turkey gobble must be sweet and cute, like some orange and brown tissue paper potluck buffet plate? No.

One bird begins a wee wobble and the others chime in with collective gusto that rises like a shrill aural high tide sea boiling fear touching blood gonna eat me alive, decibels surprising.

The resident apprentice hears the turkey cacophony, jumps the fence, runs over to where I am standing: stuck in one place, rotating around with camera clicking back at the nipping, biting, gobbling, pushing, ramming, surrounding turkey mob. She frowns and says, “Stop! Take this stick and help me get the birds back into the pen. GO!”

She coaxs them back in the pen (I am not much help), and says best you not go in the fields anymore today. DANG. Not a good start to my visual investigation of Root Down Farm.

After midnight in my cabin bed, I hear Dede’s car pull up the gravel drive. I toss and turn. Was she going to be totally pissed off that the turkeys escaped as soon as I stepped foot in the field? Would she throw me off the ranch and refuse to participate in the project? Before dawn, I roll out of bed to meet Dede as planned, wearing my apology for yesterday’s turkey circus like a rumpled hoodie. The morning sky is late October dark.

With a silent chuckle she says, “Turkeys are curious creatures. They push down that pen all the time. Wanna go watch me feed them?”

Yes I do.

I document her dawn time chores: feeding these big birds, then two breeds of chickens, and finally the smallest of all, the baby ducklings. Standing up, chores completed, ready for a second cup of coffee, and maybe some breakfast, Dede notices the turkey flock has once again smashed down the predator fence and is roaming: peaceful, free, and unassuming. We move quickly through the field and camera to eye, I get to see how this gifted turkey whisperer brings them all back to safety.

Definitely time for coffee.

This blog post is part of a series inspired by The Food Change, a public art project by CUESA with photographs by Anne Hamersky, featuring farmers, advocates, and everyday people who are making positive change in our food system. Learn more about Change Maker Dede Boies, featured in "Humane Farming," here.


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