I took part in an extra special Thanksgiving tradition a few times over the 13 years I lived in Tuolumne County.
I drove out the day before the holiday to Diestel Turkey Ranch, walked past the outdoor enclosure where hundreds of birds romped, and went to the sales office to get processed turkey I had ordered.
It added charm to a holiday most Americans celebrate with a turkey that moves anonymously from ranch to plant to grocery store.
The video released last week by an animal-rights group? Not so charming. It claimed to show crowded, filthy barns at two of Diestel’s other four turkey ranches in the west county. The group, Direct Action Everywhere, said the free-range home ranch was little more than a marketing ploy.
Never miss a local story.
The video was reported last week in a Washington Post article that also ran in The Modesto Bee. The Wall Street Journal did a story, too.
“Consumers want to believe there are farms where something better is happening,” Direct Action Everywhere co-founder Wayne Hsiung told the Journal. “They are twisting the compassion that so many of us feel for animals.”
Heidi Diestel, part of the fourth generation at the family-owned company, suddenly found herself in the national media. She told the Post and Journal that it was hard to tell where the video, with its dim lighting and close-up images, was shot. It also showed dead and dying animals, which she said is part of livestock production everywhere.
“We’re really proud of our farming practices and the treatment of our birds,” Diestel told me in a phone interview this week. She also said Direct Action Everywhere has a stated mission of ending animal agriculture.
The company, founded in 1949, employs 100 to 200 people each year. It is a small part of a California turkey industry dominated by Foster Farms, which does its processing in Turlock, but it draws premium prices for organic, pasture-raised and other product lines.
We’re really proud of our farming practices and the treatment of our birds.
Heidi Diestel, turkey producer
The home ranch is the only one where turkeys are pasture-raised, meaning they can peck at grass and other stuff on the ground in addition to their grain rations. This earned the site the highest possible score, 5+, from the Global Animal Partnership.
The other ranches, including those in the video, had scores of 3, meaning turkeys had some outdoor access and objects to play with. Diestel said concern about avian influenza has meant more time indoors, but the birds still can go outside sometimes.
Direct Action Everywhere singled out Whole Foods, claiming that it sold Diestel turkeys that were not raised as advertised. But a spokesman for the grocery chain told The Wall Street Journal that it sent a team to check on the conditions, and they “were not as they were portrayed in the video.”
Animal welfare has been among the most contentious issues in my 20-plus years as an ag reporter. I understand that many people do not eat meat, and many who do want to be sure that the creatures were treated well in their short lives. I have heard egg farmers explain that what looks like crowding is actually the normal social behavior of hens. Same with dairy cows. And I have seen truly horrible farming – smelled it, actually, on a day in 2012 when authorities reported about 50,000 starving hens out on Carpenter Road.
Consumers have a right to ask how their food is produced. They also have an obligation to absorb what they learn. I mention this in light of a survey released this week by the National Chicken Council, which appears to have some work ahead of it:
▪ 77 percent of respondents believe that chicken has added hormones and steroids. What they don’t know is that the USDA has banned them in poultry since the 1950s.
▪ 68 percent believe that chickens raised for meat are housed in cages. That’s only true for laying hens at eggs farms, and those in California got extra space via a 2008 ballot measure.
▪ 68 percent believe that the media “portrays the care of chickens negatively.”