SONORA, Calif. -- Tim Diestel was happy to show off the free-range turkeys his family raises east of town. One of the toms wasn't so welcoming. He kept nipping at the ankle of a reporter who walked amid the birds at Diestel Turkey Ranch on Tuesday morning.
The other turkeys looked content as they ambled about and munched on their feed. They live for six months before going to market, about 50 percent longer than today's industry standard.
The result, fans of the product say, is a tender and tasty centerpiece for a Thanksgiving feast.
"It gives you a finer-textured meat and much better flavor," Diestel said. "Our No. 1 comment from customers is, "Your turkey tastes like the turkey my grandmother and great-grandmother had.'"
The ranch is one of the most successful agricultural enterprises in Tuolumne County, which is mainly a producer of timber and beef cattle. The business was started in 1949 by Jack Diestel, Tim's father.
The company produces about a quarter-million turkeys a year, less than 2 percent of the state's production. But they fetch a high price per pound from people who like the idea of raising poultry outdoors over several months.
"I like the local, range-fed turkey," said Steve Medlen, who serves Diestel products at his House of Beef restaurant in Oakdale. "They have developed a turkey that's a broad-breasted, free-range turkey that has excellent muscle texture and superior flavor."
Most large-scale turkey operations, including those in Stanislaus and Merced counties, keep their birds in large buildings. They can move about on the floor, but they don't go outside.
Even at Diestel, "free range" is a bit of a misnomer. The poults -- newly hatched turkeys from a Fresno County breeder -- are kept indoors for several weeks. They then live out their lives in large fenced areas, such as the one that held that testy tom, covering much of a small hillside.
The turkeys eat a mix of corn, soybeans, vitamins and minerals, the basic diet for the industry. Growth hormones are not used by Diestel or any other U.S. turkey producers.
Diestel recently launched an organic line, meaning that the feed is from farms free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The line includes an heirloom breed called American bronze, which is on the small side and resembles the wild turkeys that the Indians shared with the Pilgrims.
Diestel has its main ranch and processing plant about five miles east of Sonora. This site and its four other ranches total about 1,500 acres, all in Tuolumne County.
A mild autumn sun shone as Tim Diestel gave the tour at the home ranch. A faint scent of manure mingled with a hint of smoke from the burn piles that dot the foothills this time of year. The turkeys, clad in pure white feathers and sporting perhaps the ugliest faces in the animal kingdom, wandered around their pens.
Most of the time, they conversed in low-volume gobbles. If a human got close, they joined in a louder chorus that sounded somewhat like waves crashing on a beach. These were among the nearly 200 distinct sounds that turkeys make, Diestel said.
Turkeys, he added, have an undeserved reputation for stupidity, such as when they run into each other when disturbed. The truth, he said, is that they are wary creatures that know when a predator is nearby.
Catching a turkey takes some human skill. The trick is to look at a bird other than the one you are seeking. "If you look at it, the turkey's gone," Diestel said.
"He'll just run into the crowd and hide, and you'll have a heck of a time catching him."
Once caught, the turkeys are slaughtered and eviscerated in the plant, then washed and packaged at a rate of 12 per minute during the November rush. The plant has a federal inspector on hand and uses precautions against microbes that could make people sick.
In May, the company voluntarily recalled 6,907 pounds of turkey deli products because routine testing found that one piece was contaminated with listeria bacteria. No illnesses were reported.
"Fortunately, the product that was questioned was still in the warehouse," Diestel said. The incident showed that the system for detecting impurities works, he said.
The poultry industry also has taken steps to keep the birds from infecting each other with avian influenza and other diseases. This is one reason for the indoor production in the San Joaquin Valley.
Diestel said he can continue to operate outdoors because his ranches are many miles from the large-scale producers in the valley, and from the routes of migrating wild fowl.
Free-range birds make up about 5 percent of the state's turkey production, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto.
"There's room for everybody, particularly around the Thanksgiving holiday," he said. "There's a part of the market that wants turkey that has access to the environment."
And that includes the feisty ones, which Diestel assures are just as tender as all the rest.