Beth Whiting and Bruce Hennessey raise broad-breasted white turkeys on pasture for Walden members’ Thanksgiving shares. Beth and Bruce have been raising turkeys in Vermont for more than 15 years, and, as the days begin to shorten and the growing season begins to wind down, they know it’s time to prepare for one last big push before winter hits.
“Currently our staff probably works a minimum of 10 hours a day, and then they pump it up in October and November to at least 14 on processing days,” said Bruce. “It can make for some long days at the end of a very long season.”
Beth and Bruce started farming with 100 percent grass-fed beef cattle in Huntington, Vermont, in 1999. They added pasture-raised hogs and chickens about one year later. Bruce had been vegetarian for seven years and began researching healthy and environmentally friendly ways to reincorporate meat into his diet. What started as a side project for Beth and Bruce—who both hold master’s degrees in education and worked in classrooms before farming—became a passion.
“We started raising turkeys because our customers wanted them,” said Bruce. “We soon saw they were tremendous animals on pasture—they really thrive on pasture. They’re our best poultry grazers.”
Thanksgiving season is partly so busy because of the care and attention Beth and Bruce put into processing their birds. Unlike many other farming outfits in New England, Beth and Bruce do all of their poultry processing on-site, using safe methods that ensure great-tasting and healthy food. Beth and Bruce prefer to have end-to-end control over the food they provide for their community to make sure that food meets their standards.
“Eight or nine years ago, or so, there was a state mobile processing unit for poultry that went around and you could reserve their time and have them come to your farm, but they went out of business,” said Bruce. “That represented a loss of 30,000 local chickens to the New England market, but it also represented a major opportunity for us. We decided to fill that gap and really make a business out of our poultry. It was either that or stop selling chicken and turkeys all together.”
With almost two decades of experience raising birds, Beth and Bruce not only help other local farmers create marketable products from their livestock, but they also offer advice to those looking to grow healthier, better-tasting chickens.
“We saw an opportunity to drive a different method of producing birds,” said Bruce. Beth and Bruce designed the processing plant to safely reduce exposure to chemicals and ensure the chicken and turkey retain their natural flavor. “That’s been super important to us. And so it seems like we’re starting to make a change in how people raise chickens overall up here in our little sphere of influence.”
Making their community a better place than they found it is important to Beth and Bruce. It’s a form of giving back to the New Englanders that helped them continue farming after many different trials. In 2013, a fire took their historic barn and lots of expensive farming equipment, and in 2019, a major flood on Halloween night almost put them out of business. But each time, support from their neighbors and people who believe in the local food movement helped them rebuild, better than before.
“Our community is everything for us. That is it. Our community just wouldn’t let us quit. It’s been great,” Bruce said. “They’ve told us, ‘You can’t stop. You have to keep going and we’re here to help you.’ And it’s been absolutely true. That’s been every step of the way for us. We’ve had tremendous support.”
Bruce likes to point out that—through community support—they have been able to add an average of 2 percent organic matter to the soil each year for the last ten years. “Each percentage point represents 1.4 tons of carbon per acre and an additional 22,000 gallons of water holding capacity per acre per year. And so, to me, that’s a huge benefit.”
In North Billerica, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving is a busy time for the Walden team, too. Our team members may be driving a truck one day, packing shares another, and answering phones the next. And while the hours are long and the rush can be hectic, watching a group become stronger than the sum of its parts is a magical thing to witness and of which to be a part.
We’re incredibly grateful for the Walden member community this year. In a time characterized by uncertainty, you’ve helped us expand our local mission while supporting small farmers with a passion for healthy, sustainable food—farmers such as Beth and Bruce.