A harvest to be thankful for

Families can harvest their own regional breed, free-range turkey at local farm.

Story and photos by Bailey Ballard

Turkeys at Comfort Farms. In the past, around 50 turkeys were sold each year but, with the expansion of the farm, up to 300 to 400 turkeys will likely be sold next year. Photo by Bailey Ballard

In 2017, Jon Jackson, founder of Comfort Farms, introduced Family Harvest Turkey Day as an annual event. Every year since its introduction to the farm, people from across the country have traveled to Milledgeville to pick up and prepare their turkey for Thanksgiving.


“I think the Family Harvest is a sign of respect for the animals' lives and farming culture,” Jackson said. “The impact is getting to bring home a bird that they are intimately involved with versus picking up a bird from the supermarket. Families have more gratitude for the turkey’s life and its meat when they know how it was treated and put their own work into preparing it.”

Jon Jackson, founder of Comfort Farms, believes a family harvest leads to more gratitude for farming culture and animals’ lives. Photo by Bailey Ballard.

Turkeys are sold out in advance of Family Harvest Turkey Day. According to Jackson, they annually receive more orders than turkeys available. As of now, they sell about 50 turkeys in total.


“We've only done about 50 turkeys every year to give people that more intimate experience, but the demand is much higher than that,” Jackson noted. “People want to know their turkey, support ethical raising and enjoy this experience of the Family Harvest. It becomes a big part of their Thanksgiving season.”


All the turkeys sold at Comfort Farms are raised on the grounds. Originally Bourbon Red turkeys were sold, but now the farm has expanded into cross-breeding the turkeys. The most popular cross breed they sell is the ‘Shagbark’ turkey crossed from a Bourbon Red and a Narragansett. According to Jackson, the birds have a beautiful yellow fat that is “insanely delicious” and the taste ranges for each turkey based upon what they are eating around the farm and how they grow.

These turkeys are crossbred to establish the regional breed for Comfort Farms named the “Shagbark Turkey.”

“We have a beautiful bird from the crosses that we're going to keep as our regional bird. Their feathers make them look like the Shagbark Hickory trees that we have around here, so I call them Shagbark Turkeys,” said Jackson. “I think it's important to crossbreed and establish new breeds because every region has their own things that work for them. Having a breed that represents your home and is raised with a unique flavor is important.”

The regional crossbreed is named the Shagbark Turkey for its feathers that resemble a Shagbark Hickory Tree.

Ethically raised

While the turkeys are raised for meat, they are also raised with the intention of being able to survive on their own. According to Jackson, people do sometimes adopt the turkeys for other reasons than their meat. Due to this, it is ensured that the turkeys are raised with their instincts in mind and less dependence on assistance from humans.


“We're looking for a turkey that could exhibit the natural instinct to be able to fly and get out of danger, use instinct to find good nesting areas, and more. We're trying to develop a good birth to homestead for people who want to have animals that are not necessarily reliant on human interaction,” Jackson said. “If we were all pilgrims to this place, turkeys would not require us to have that much interaction with them, so we try to break back towards that.”


Rather than being cramped together and fattened up in one area, like in the commercial market, Comfort Farms offer opportunities for the animals to scavenge, roost, be in the elements and use their natural instincts. The farm only provides minimal measures to ensure the birds cannot escape, are protected from predators, and have a few choices of coops around them.


“We put all the infrastructure improvements in for the birds to keep animals safe from predators and out of the rain and weather if they choose to use it,” said Jackson. “They’re going to spend most of their life out in the pasture and then for the last three to four months, we lock them down in the coops where they have enough room to do what they want and still enjoy their natural environment while we also have a little more control on their weight and safety.”


Harvesting

Families will pick their turkey out before Family Harvest Turkey Day. Then, on the day of the event, each family will go through a 30-minute process of learning how to ethically slaughter and prepare their turkey. This process begins with either Comfort Farm employees killing the turkey or the family doing so. Then, families will move into draining blood from the turkey, boiling the turkey to defeather it and plucking any leftover feathers off.


“When teaching people through this process, safety is of the most importance on how to do that,” Jackson said. “When people are at home, safety can sometimes be thrown out the window, but we want them to know all of the safety precautions and risks. We also put priority in cleaning each station and ensuring the safety of each visitor since preparing food has a lot of risks.”


Once the turkey is just a carcass, families move to the dirty station and learn how to remove entrails and save parts that are consumable. Then, the carcass will be moved to the clean station where families will finish last minute preparations and weigh their turkey.


“Our community is involved in that whole process from picking the turkey, to slaughtering it and preparing it for their future meal,” Jackson said. “Most of our visitors are from out of state and from areas with less farming. People are curious about the process, want to learn and be involved with their turkey. It’s all about the education and the experience.”


Jackson and his family partake in the Family Harvest as well, though Jackson noted they typically prepare guinea fowl to ensure that the turkeys are available to the community.


“We have some really delicious turkey and I know a lot of people love turkey so I would much rather sell a turkey to a community that really wants them,” he explained.


Farm with a purpose

Jackson was a U.S. Army Ranger for 11 years before being discharged due to injuries. After his discharge, he thought of starting his own restaurant. Through research and experience, however, he learned that the preparation for food was more important than where it was served.


“I had an idea before opening a restaurant but then I realized farming comes before that,” he shared. “So, I decided to spend a few years trying to learn how to farm and find myself in this process. I'm in year six and I’m still learning, but everyone here has helped a tremendous amount of people along the way. That’s what Comfort Farms is for.”


Veterans in need find purpose and healing through STAG VETS at Comfort Farms. Photo contributed

In 2014, Jackson established the nonprofit STAG (Striving to Achieve Greatness) Vets, Inc. to aid veterans in need primarily through work or volunteering. Comfort Farms was established in 2016 as one of the services offered under the nonprofit. It was named after a friend, who lost his life in combat in May of 2010, Kyle A. Comfort.


“Service is a huge component in every veteran’s life, so to be able to serve again, to be able to be here whether it's for food, whether it's for business or whether it's just for your own self-awareness is what Comfort Farms is for,” Jackson said. “It gives veterans an opportunity to engage and deal with their trauma in a much healthier way and find their place within the community again.”


Comfort Farms will be continuing to expand in the coming years. As of now, Jackson is working on several buildings on the property and with an upcoming expansion, the farm will be able to sell around 300 to 400 turkeys next year. For more information, or to learn how to order a turkey for next year, go to www.stagvetsinc.org.

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Story and photos by Bailey Ballard, as published in the November-December 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.