Most of the Thanksgiving turkeys Jeremy and Heather Ballinger ordered in the mail this year showed up dead.
The turkeys were victims of United States Postal Service delays. As they opened the boxes, the Ballingers prayed that they’d find live chicks inside.
“It was really sad to see them all dead in the box,” Heather Ballinger said. “We knew they had been in the mail for too long, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. I just felt so sorry for them. They had essentially starved to death.”
They were depressed by the count. Only 10 of the 55 chicks they unboxed were still alive.
“A few stragglers survived,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “They were tough.”
He was afraid he’d be laughed off the phone when trying to order more turkeys, but he did it anyway. After making a lot of frantic calls to his fellow farmers, Jeremy managed to get 50 more turkeys shipped out. The chicks arrived a week later, all of them alive.
Such is life on Flying Fortress Farm, a family operation run on a 5-acre parcel just north of Granite Falls. In addition to turkeys, the farm offers pasture-raised chickens, rabbits, pork and eggs.
It’s turkey time right now. Their flock of broad-breasted white turkeys will soon be ready for the Thanksgiving table. Broad-breasted turkeys take about 17 weeks to reach a weight of 16 to 20 pounds.
“Ours is the same breed of Thanksgiving turkey you’d buy at the grocery store,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “It’s the one you’re most familiar with.”
Many like the idea of a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, they said, but when it shows up on the dinner table, you realize it’s not what you had in mind. Why is that? Heritage turkeys don’t grow as large as their broad-breasted counterparts. And, if you prefer white meat, the breasts are about half the size.
“We already do things differently on our farm,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “We didn’t want the turkey to also look different.”
The Flying Fortress Farm pledge is that their meat and eggs are pasture-raised, farm-to-table and beyond organic.
What does beyond organic mean? The Ballinger farm isn’t certified organic, but they still follow all of the United States Department of Agriculture’s recommendations — and then they go beyond what is required.
All of the animals at Flying Fortress Farm forage in fresh grass all day. The Ballingers have a chicken coop and a brooder — but no barn. They rotate the animals to different areas of the pasture so they aren’t living in their own manure. In addition to grass, the animals are fed a supplement of organic and non-GMO grain. They’re also never given any drugs — so no vaccines, antibiotics or hormones.
“Everything is raised outside, not on dirt or in a barn,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “It’s for the welfare of the animal and for the nutrition it adds to the food it’s producing. Then, their manure acts as free fertilizer, improving the soil in our pasture.”
“Pasture-raised means the animal can’t just be out on the grass in the same spot every day,” he added. “They have to be on the move because, otherwise they’re just going to destroy the ground, and then it’s not a pasture anymore — it’s a moonscape.”
As farmers, the Ballingers also pledge to give the animals the respect they deserve, from their first day on the farm to their last.
“It takes a lot of work to raise good, healthy food,” Heather Ballinger said. “But I think it’s worth it.
“I like just being able to have a connection to our food,” she added. “Buying stuff at the grocery store, you don’t really know anything about what went into it.”
In 2016, Jeremy and Heather Ballinger moved into their Granite Falls-area home with plans to turn the back of the property into a farm. Their three daughters — Livia, 13, Natalie, 11, and Addy, 6 — picked out and named about 15 laying hens.
“Then it slowly progressed to more chickens, then rabbits and turkeys,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “But the chickens, they started the whole thing here.”
That first year on the farm in 2017, they had 60 meat chickens, 25 laying hens and five turkeys.
This year they’re raising 400 meat chickens, 85 laying hens, 60 turkeys, 45 rabbits and 10 pigs. They also manage a community-supported agriculture program, in which about 15 customers pay a set fee for meat and eggs.
The farm is named after the World War II bomber in honor of Jeremy’s grandfather. Herschel Ballinger was a gunner on the B-17 Flying Fortress during the war. He served in the Air Force for 13 years.
“I’m an Air Force veteran myself, so we have that connection,” he said. Jeremy was in the Air Force from 2000 to 2007. After 9/11, he deployed to the Middle East.
The airplane theme continues on the farm itself: mobile shelters are called “hangars,” meat chickens are divided into “squadrons,” the laying hens are “bombers,” the pasture is “the flightline,” etc. The farm also is a Farmer Veteran Coalition member.
Jeremy was inspired by his grandfather’s era to join the slow-food movement. Food production was simpler back then. You didn’t have to worry about antibiotics, GMOs or organic labels. You didn’t have to wonder where your food comes from because you bought it from a farmer.
“We aim to produce food the way it was back then,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “Food like my grandparents ate when they were growing up.”
When the Ballingers married 16 years ago, farming wasn’t in the picture. Jeremy and Heather were living in downtown Everett, both working demanding jobs. Heather, 39, is a nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Jeremy, 40, is a police officer for the Mukilteo Police Department.
Now they’re slowly transitioning away from their jobs, so they can expand their farming operations within the next two years. So far, they have plans to raise more chickens and turkeys — and possibly more pigs. A $5,000 grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition is helping them purchase the equipment they need to do all of their butchering in-house.
“We have pretty stressful careers, and we’ve both been in those for almost 20 years now, and we definitely find peace in working with animals,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “It’s really, really hard work, but it’s relaxing at the same time.”
“I would have never thought that this would be what I would be doing, but it’s great,” Heather Ballinger said. “His passion and excitement got me excited about it, too.”
Of all the farm animals, the turkeys are Jeremy and Heather’s favorite.
They’re incredibly social birds, so they’ll follow you around the farm. The turkeys want to know what you’re up to, even if you aren’t watering or feeding them. They’re also vigilant and vocal, chirping when young and gobbling when grown in response to loud noises.
“They have so much more personality than the chickens do,” Heather Ballinger said. “They’re hilarious.”
“They’re so fun — and they’re so funny,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “They’re so inquisitive and curious. They like to peck at my boots. They’re pretty goofy. They make chickens look smart.”
Most of the time, all three of their daughters will help unbox chicks when they arrive in the mail. They show the chicks where their food and water is in the brooder — which is a heated house for chicks — helping the birds settle into their new home.
When it’s time to move them to the pasture, the girls help load the chicks from the brooder into crates, carry them out to the pasture, and then unload them from the crates into their shelters. They also help load up the chickens into crates when it’s time to take them to the butcher.
Flying Fortress Farm chicken and rabbit is butchered at Osprey Hill Farm in Acme; the pork is butchered at Kelso Kustom Meats in Snohomish. The Ballingers have a Washington State Department of Agriculture permit to butcher their own turkey.
Natalie, their middle daughter, spends much of her free time at the rabbit shelter, loving on the bunnies.
When its time to put the turkeys to bed — they’re the only animal on the farm that needs help with this — Addy, their youngest, likes to help her father shoo the birds back into their shelters.
Every afternoon, their oldest daughter, Livia, collects and washes all of the chicken eggs. She also expressed interest in helping out when it’s time to butcher the turkeys.
Jeremy and Heather said it’s bittersweet that the animals they raise must die in the name of nourishment. It was especially difficult for their daughters, at first.
Over time, the girls have grown to understand and appreciate the animal’s life cycle on the farm.
“They’re able to see how we steward what we’ve been given to help our family and to help others,” Heather Ballinger said.
“We always say a little prayer and thank the animals for their sacrifice,” Jeremy Ballinger said. “We want to make sure that every day they have on the farm is a good day — even their last.”
Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; firstname.lastname@example.org; @sarabruestle.
More about the farm
Flying Fortress Farm, 16520 130th St. NE, near Granite Falls, provides pasture-raised chicken, rabbit, pork, eggs and turkey. Call 425-319-5213 or email email@example.com to make a reservation. Go to flyingfortressfarm.com for more information.
Owners Jeremy and Heather Ballinger sell their meat and eggs at the Stanwood Farmers Market throughout the summer and, in the off-season, the Ballingers make deliveries in the Stanwood area.
You can also visit the farm to make your purchases. Just call to make an appointment first.
If you were hoping to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey this year — sorry, you’re out of luck. Their flock of turkeys was sold out by Sept. 21. Mark your calendar to reserve your own farm-fresh bird next summer.
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the fall/winter issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.