A turkey’s life before the Thanksgiving table
When Patrick McNiff, owner of Pat’s Pastured, left his Long Island home to attend Providence College in 1992, he didn’t have farming on his mind. In fact, he got his undergraduate degree in history and public service, and his master’s in community economic development.
It wasn’t until after he graduated that Mc- Niff got his first taste of farming. He was working with at-risk youth in a Providence neighborhood. Part of that job was running a garden project. He fell in love with the farming aspect of the project.
“I thought it was great to see how land and food could bring people together from any background,” McNiff said. “Because we all eat. You can get anybody to talk about what they eat, or how land affects their life.”
It wasn’t long until McNiff became a vegetable farmer. Eventually, he began working with livestock as a sideline, and went into business for himself. “It grew as more and more people were concerned about getting meat that was raised in a healthy, ethical and humane way,” McNiff said.
Right now, however, McNiff’s focus is on turkeys. He will process some 260 turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday this year. The turkeys arrive in mid-July as day-old poults. They are then allowed to roam free in the pasture for the entirety of their short lives.
“The turkeys are great grazers. When you open up a new piece of grass they love going through and eating the grass and looking for insects,” McNiff said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a turkey try to hunt down that grasshopper that he really wants to eat, instead of being in confinement indoors [away from] a blade of grass or a drop of sun- shine. For the turkeys it’s a great life for them to do that.”
McNiff raises two different turkey breeds. The broad-breasted bronze is an older breed, with less white meat proportionally and a great turkey flavor. There is also the standard white, a big-breasted bird that is more like what most people are used to.
“People are always amazed when they buy these turkeys because it actually tastes like something and they don’t need gravy to make it have flavor,” McNiff said. “It also cooks faster than a storebought one because it’s not all pumped up with salts, sugar, water and preservatives. When you’re done it will make some of the best stock you’ve ever tasted in terms of turkey stock.”
McNiff has been leasing land at Beaverhead Farm in Jamestown for the last three years, as well as several other locations. He leases about 100 acres altogether in different places, and that’s one of the reasons that this is his last season at Beaverhead.
McNiff will consolidate his efforts to a farm owned by a town land trust in East Greenwich. Another advantage to the East Greenwich farm is that McNiff will be able to live there, which he is not able to do in Jamestown.
According to McNiff, who ran Casey Farm in Saunderstown at one time, his farm is about creating an environment that mimics nature and allows animals to express their full potential and their natural proclivities. Free-range chickens are raised in a pasture where they’re able to peck and scratch. Pigs can root and dig in the woods. Cattle and sheep are able to eat grass because that’s what they’re designed to do.
“It’s called multi-species rotational grazing, and the way we do it helps the environment and helps the land heal itself and improves the soil as they go,” McNiff said. “Instead of leaving an animal in one place for a long period of time, we move them around. It allows them to spread their manure and improve the soils.”
The end product is a healthier product for McNiff’s customers. Grass-fed beef and lamb is lower in saturated fats and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids.
“All the things that they tell you about beef that is raised in feed lots, in terms of what it can do to your health, is true, but when you start eating grass-fed animals, it’s actually a much healthier product,” McNiff said. “It’s closer to what you see in fish that are caught in the wild. We’re trying to create a great environment for our animals, and a great product for our customers.”
Farming may be an ancient tradition, but Pat’s Pastured is thoroughly modern in terms of marketing. McNiff’s business has a website, as well as a presence on Facebook and Twitter. He also sells his products at a number of Rhode Island farmer’s markets, including the Coastal Growers winter market at Lafayette Mill in North Kingstown. Pat’s Pastured products are also found in a number of Rhode Island restaurants.
It is important to McNiff to keep what he sells within a 100-mile radius of the farm. “We need to create local food sheds,” he said. “We don’t ship out of state.”
“I didn’t dream that this was really going to happen,” McNiff added. “It was an accident, but a really great, lucky accident that I found it. Rhode Island is a great state for people interested in buying local food and supporting farmers.”