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Originally published November 20, 2012 at 7:19 PM | Page modified November 20, 2012 at 8:06 PM

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Raising free-range turkeys takes extra effort, Skagit farmers say

Raising free-range turkeys is no easy business. Some turkey mothers step on their babies, often killing them, and others fly off the farm to lay eggs.

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MOUNT VERNON — Skagit Valley farmers who raise free-range turkeys say it's more expensive and not as easy as raising other poultry.

George and Eiko Vojkovich raised 300 turkeys this year at their Skagit River Ranch in Sedro-Woolley. It specializes in pasture-raised beef and organic pork, chicken and eggs.

The main reason they raise turkeys is customer demand, they told the Skagit Valley Herald (is.gd/BGK0A2) for a story Tuesday.

"The customers wanted it. They wanted turkey that's not raised in a factory," Eiko Vojkovich said. "They wanted a sustainably raised, organic turkey for their Thanksgiving table."

The cost of feeding the birds, difficulties keeping them alive and finding a market to sell them all pose significant challenges, even for experienced farmers, said Joan DeVries, program coordinator of the Livestock Advisor program at Washington State University's Skagit County Extension.

"They're really hard to raise," said George Vojkovich. "I thought I could raise them just like chickens."

Turkeys are far more sensitive to the elements, requiring protection against cold, rain and wind to stay alive, disease-free and comfortable. Baby turkeys, called poults, are often victims of their own mother's crushing feet in the nest.

Even harder to raise are heritage turkeys, a more traditional variety that hasn't been bred to develop plump breasts.

Laura Faley, who has raised both heritage and broad-breasted turkeys on Mount Vernon's Hidden Meadow Ranch since 2003, said heritage turkeys like to fly into nearby woods to lay eggs. The birds often are picked off by coyotes, raccoons and other predators.

They also need overhead protection against owls and eagles, DeVries said.

"It's quite easy for somebody who's raising turkeys to experience a 50 to 70 percent loss. That's one reason why they cost so much," Faley said.

Another reason is the cost of grain.

George said he pays $24 for a 40-pound bag of organic grain that a full-grown turkey will eat in about a week.

As a result, the Vojkoviches sell their turkeys for $7 per pound. That compares with the national retail average price of $1.58 per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Skagit River Ranch sells at three Seattle farmers markets, where the ranch first started selling beef 15 years ago. Presale orders for turkeys start coming in March, Eiko Vojkovich said.

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