Get a Diestel,” my foodie niece said to me when I told her I wanted a special turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
“A what?” I asked.
“A Diestel turkey. Ever heard of them? They have them at markets like Whole Foods,” she answered. “Diestel is the name of the family who raises the turkeys,” she added.
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Since the nearest Whole Foods is 150 miles away, I wondered where I could find a Diestel, but I did, and roasted it according to the directions on the package. My niece was right. The bird tasted like a real turkey, not cardboard, was rich in flavor and moist. After checking out the Diestel website, I wondered how a poultry operation that seemed like a small family business and sustainable farm could process enough turkeys to fulfill orders across the western United States. I found out during a visit to Sonora, California, last spring when I had a chance to visit the home ranch and meet some members of the Diestel family.
To my surprise, the two Diestels in charge turned out to be Heidi, age 27, and her brother, Jason, 31. Their parents, Tim and Joan, still look over their shoulders but have pretty much turned the business over to them. Heidi and Jason’s brother, Garrett, works off-site but helps with the cost accounting, and Heidi’s husband, Jared Orrock, is in the financial accounting end of the business.
Joan Diestel explained why she
and Tim have stepped into the background. “The business needs to stay relevant to today’s changing market and the children understand what their generation wants.”
Later, Heidi elaborated, “Our parents created the foundation and we are continuing it and creating something of our own. They have wonderful relationships with vendors and very much coach, help and guide us.”
Bird Farming Roots
Heidi and Jason are fourth-generation turkey farmers. Their great-great grandfather immigrated to the Sierra foothills from Europe about a century ago and started raising turkeys. Their great-uncle sold them to restaurants and on the wharf in San Francisco. Their grandfather, Jack, helped deliver the birds. In 1949 Jack founded the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, which Tim and Joan bought in 1982.
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The couple met at UC Davis. Joan is a registered dietician and wanted the Diestel turkeys to be good for people as well as good to eat. “They farmed antibiotic-free and developed a market niche. Many of their practices were organic before people started using that word,” said Heidi.
Heidi, Jason and Garrett grew up working on the ranch, then went off to college, thinking the grass would be greener in other places. At Cal Poly, Jason studied accounting and realized that was not for him. Soon, he was back at the ranch implementing concepts, such as nutrient density, that he learned about in agriculture classes.
It took Heidi a while longer to come home. Like her mother, she was interested in health. After graduating from Cal Poly, she “started working away from the ranch, then figured out that we had something that was pretty unique and special. I decided that I could probably have a greater impact if I came back and worked with Jason than if I did something on my own. My motivation was to have a fourth-generation turkey farm that is producing an awesome product.”
Today the “awesome product” is turkey in many forms, all raised sustainably, some organically, and ranging from the traditional holiday bird to Heidi’s organic turkey slices for the grab-and-go consumer.
Heidi works mostly on the customer, marketing and product side of the business, while Jason does the ranching part. They process 200,000 turkeys for the holidays. When she saw the look of surprise on my face, she said, “That’s not large. We are the smallest commercial turkey operation in the western United States, more like Peet’s Coffee. We are not Starbucks or a mom-and-pop shop. We do have a footprint and can make a difference, but we are small for our industry.
“We are not the least expensive turkey, but supply a natural, slow-grown turkey and work to deliver the products customers want. We are always asking vendors about new products they would like and what sells well. We keep careful, detailed records, and when the next turkey season rolls around we can suggest that the vendor buy so many medium-size or small birds, etc. ‘Listening is the key,’ my mother always says.”
Tim Diestel grew up farming sustainably, and his son and daughter are committed to that model. “A lot of folks put up a solar panel and think they are sustainable. Sustainability for us is really about nutrition. It’s about sustaining yourself first,” Heidi said.
The challenge for Heidi and Jason is to be sustainable when raising more than a small flock of turkeys—and to do so on six farms while also working with other farmers, some in the Midwest. As Heidi explained, “In order to have a good business, we have to have consistency, have to have partnerships.”
The consistency begins with the breeds they use and continues with the way they raise their turkeys. All are slow grown, are fed grains grown in the U.S. without antibiotics or growth stimulants, but only “Diestel Organic & American Heirloom Collections” are certified organic. For these hens, Jason buys organic grain, about twice the cost of non-organic grain, and mills it at the ranch.
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“We have a lot of customers who are interested in organic, a lot who are not. Some just want a good-tasting turkey,” Heidi answered when asked why everything they sold was not certified organic, although all are raised sustainably.
As the business grew, the Diestels realized they could not do everything. They do not have a breeding program. “We partner with folks who do that,” said Heidi. “We started our own breeding lines about 20 years ago and have preserved them. Most breeders use one breed, we use about six. We’ll get the eggs, work with a small hatchery that works with us. That way we know what is coming. We don’t let the turkeys mate naturally. When you get to a certain size, you need to know exactly how many birds you are going to have and when they will arrive.”
Again, for the sake of consistency, none of their turkeys are heritage breeds. “Some do not always perform on the table,” explained Heidi. The turkeys sold in the “Heirloom Collection” are a cross between heritage breeds like the Auburn, Spanish Black and American Bronze.
The GAP To Better Birds
One of the reasons the turkeys have so much flavor is the way they are raised. For Jason, nutrient density is the key—starting with the soil, which eventually translates into nutrient-dense meat. “We grow our birds slowly,” he said. “We don’t give them fast-growing feeds. The energy content of our feed produces growth at a natural growth rate and lowers the stress on the birds. And we feed good quality grains without filler.”
He talked with pride about the fact that the original farm—the one we were visiting—is a GAP Step 5+, the highest rating given. He saw the bewildered look on my face and explained that “GAP” stands for “Global Animal Partnership,” a program started by Whole Foods. Joan and Tim were involved in the initial planning. A GAP Step 5+ certification means that a farm is a multi-species, rotational-grazing one and that the animal spends its entire life on one farm.
“This farm supports about 6,000 turkeys seasonally, some cattle, 50 to 100 goats, a few sheep, 500 laying hens for their pastured eggs and a few pigs. The five other Diestel ranches are GAP Step 3, meaning that they have access to the outdoors,” he said.
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Currently, most of the ranches the Diestels partner with are GAP Step 3. For cost reasons, it simply is not feasible for all of their ranches to be GAP Step 5+, Heidi said, adding, “The importance of the 5+ is that we are able to learn from that ranch and find more economical ways to attain its benefits.”
Jason’s Winning Compost
During his senior year, Jason Diestel needed a college project and started a compost operation at the ranch. He realized that a nutrient-dense turkey begins with nutrient-dense soil. “The light bulb turned on for me when I saw what we could do to influence soil. The whole nutrient density piece intrigued me. I didn’t understand that there were drastic changes in nutrient density based on soil, how you raise an animal or grow a grain. When I did, it opened my eyes about things we could do to improve our quality.”
THE SYSTEM: At the ranch, he developed an innovative way to make compost from the turkey manure and the waste generated during processing—the turkey feathers, the manure, the bedding and from chipped trees obtained from a local tree-trimming service. (The offal goes to a rendering plant.) “The idea was really born out of necessity and seemed like the right thing to do and a good use of resources. We had to change where our feathers were going, and I didn’t want to see any of those resources go into a landfill. It took a few months to figure out the system. We recycled them and created a high-quality compost.”
AERATING: Breaking down the turkey feathers proved difficult until he learned about the Cadillac of compost turners made by Aeromaster. The machine aerates the material, turning it over while releasing carbon dioxide and applying water. He also developed a windrow system that takes only 10 weeks to turn the raw material into humus compost.
COMPOST BIZ: Today, the compost operation almost supports itself from bulk sales to farms. “A lot of our CSA farmers here use it in place of other soil amendments. We have also started a bunch of school gardens. We believe in getting real food into the schools. It makes a big difference for the next generation.”
Pasture To Table
The birds are minimally processed at the farm without gluten, casein, preservatives or salt, and are ice-chilled, then bagged and chilled to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. To paraphrase Joel Salatin, the Diestel way is to give their turkeys a wonderful life and one bad day.
Trying new products and recipes is a family tradition that has resulted in healthy Grab’n Go turkey slices, turkey sausage, turkey tenderloins and turkey burgers. As we were leaving, she and Joan were talking about a family dinner the previous night when they had prepared a recipe for a Boudin blanc—stuffed turkey breast with sausage. You might see it in the Diestel product line one of these days.
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The ranch left me with the impression that I had seen a slice of 21st century family farming, where quality trumps quantity, and 20- and 30-somethings are coming home, ready to innovate using today’s technology instead of fleeing the family farm for good. As Heidi put it, “We are always trying to find new ways to attain our old-fashioned values.” To learn more, visit diestelturkey.com and globalanimalpartnership.org.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.