Students at Fulton Elementary School in Howard County have their own way of counting down the weeks to New Year's Eve. The hefty, white birds that sun themselves on the hillside beyond the playing fields--first by the thousands, then by the hundreds--lessen in number. There is far less throaty gobbling going on.

Then, the big birdies are gone.

By Jan. 1 each year, all of the more than 19,000 turkeys raised at Maple Lawn Farms--the only family-owned operation in the Washington area that raises and sells its own turkeys--have been either sold or frozen.

Turkey lovers from far and wide, folks who insist on the freshest possible seasonal bird, know the way to the farm's processing plant. Their cars stream down the long drive on Route 216 in Fulton. They pass a pond, then dairy barns, sheds and silos that make up the Iager family's 1,500-acre farm, established in 1839.

Those who prefer to beat the long lines make the pilgrimage to Maple Lawn Farms the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Thereafter, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday sales are nonstop.

Dads come. Moms come. Whole families step up to one of five stainless-steel tables. Steps away, plump "free-range" turkeys--dressed fowl that minutes before pecked for bugs and grain in the fenced barnyard--hang from an overhead conveyor line.

There is every size of turkey--hens and toms.

A farm visit is one way to shop for the holiday main course. But most people appreciate the ease of purchasing their turkey at the nearest supermarket. They may not know, or care to know, the difference between "free-range" and, let's say, "natural" turkey. They want a moist, large-breasted bird with two legs--when they want it.

For those shoppers, there are lots of turkeys--a bird for everyone--at stores and by mail. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has new, improved poultry labeling terms and laws, outlined below, to help shoppers know exactly what they're getting.

Frozen Turkey

Those who have space in the refrigerator to allow a bird to defrost for several days may decide on a "frozen" turkey--one that according to the USDA is "raw poultry held at a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below."

Frozen turkey, preferred by approximately 60 percent of shoppers, is convenient. Those who go the frozen route take comfort in knowing, weeks in advance, before the last-minute shopping rush, that there is a rock-hard bird at the ready. The USDA suggests for the best quality, raw, frozen poultry should be used within one year.

Fresh Turkey

Many turkey shoppers don't like the taste or texture of previously frozen turkey and are willing to wait until the last day or two to get a fresh turkey. The USDA says a "fresh" turkey is one "whose internal temperature has never been below 26 degrees" (the temperature at which poultry freezes) and "the product surface is still pliable." Fresh turkey should be cooked within one or two days of purchase. A short shelf life is one reason why fresh turkey is usually more expensive.

Other

A third temperature-related choice, a gray area, is perhaps best left unexplored for Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey processors call it "other." Raw poultry that was at one time frozen "below 26 degrees but above 0 degrees" is not required to bear any specific terms such as "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled," says the USDA. Shoppers who wish to avoid confusion can stick with fresh or frozen.

According to Diane Van, project manager for the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, the agency has never done taste tests of fresh and frozen turkey. "We don't recommend one over another." she says. (For results of our taste test, see story below.)

Free Range

The "free-range" turkeys at Maple Lawn Farms have spacious indoor and outdoor pens to strut their stuff. A staff nutritionist monitors the care and feeding of the birds. But USDA regulations do not require farmers to feed anything special to turkeys sold as free-range. Their living conditions, both indoors and out, could be crowded. Technically, free-range means only that "the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

Kosher

"Kosher" poultry, which is minimally processed, often with a few feathers remaining here and there, is salted and prepared under rabbinical supervision.

Basted

The popular brand Butterball, the largest processor of turkey in the United States, is "basted," meaning, according to the USDA, that it has been "injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water, plus spices and flavor enhancers."

Natural

When a turkey is labeled "natural" it must be a product containing "no artificial ingredient or added color." But "natural" does not indicate what the bird was fed or how it was raised. All turkeys, according to the National Turkey Federation, are hormone- and steroid-free.

Organic

The USDA is currently at work on the definition of what constitutes an "organic" turkey. Until the process is complete, turkey may be labeled "certified organic" if it includes the name of the "certifying entity," its standards and a system for ensuring that the standards are adhered to.

Wild

A turkey sold as "wild" is a different bird altogether. Available by mail from specialty game bird suppliers, they are farm raised and often free-range, cousins of domesticated breeds. The amount of breast meat is smaller than a typical over-the-counter turkey. The flavor of the meat is distinctive.

Native wild turkeys are plentiful in the great outdoors for hunters who know where to look. The National Wild Turkey Federation estimates there are more than 5 million birds on the roam in North America. Forty-nine states have a spring turkey-hunting season; some also have a fall period.

Hens vs. Toms

Which is more tender? "We get that question all the time," says Diane Van of the Meat and Poultry Hotline. According to the USDA, neither is more tender nor flavorful than the other if the birds have attained their proper weight. Supermarket turkeys are rarely labeled as hens or toms. Some specialty butchers will fill orders for toms or hens on request.

Turkey farmer Gene Iager of Maple Lawn Farms sells a broad-breasted variety of turkey that is best when hens are between 18 to 25 pounds and toms are 35 to 45 pounds. "That's when they are at their ideal weight," says Iager, whose family has raised turkeys for 61 years. (Note: Before buying such a mighty bird make sure it will fit in your oven.) Smaller turkeys are also available. "But what you want is a properly finished turkey," says Iager. That would be a bird that has attained the optimum ratio of bone to meat and a light layer of fat. "They're the ones that will have the greatest percentage of moist meat."

Maple Lawn Farms is one mile west of Route 29 (23 miles from the District line) at 11788 Route 216, Fulton; call 301-725-2074. Web site: www.maplelawn.com. Turkeys can be purchased from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Sunday, Nov. 21, through Wednesday, Nov. 24. Then call ahead for availability until New Year's Eve. Frozen turkeys are available year-round.

A Recipe for the Basic Bird

Basic Roast Turkey

(14 to 16 servings)

14- to 16-pound turkey

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Remove the giblets and neck from the body and neck cavities of the turkey. Rinse, drain and pat the turkey dry with paper towels.

Loosen the skin over the breasts by running your hands just under the skin. Try to reach with your fingers to loosen the skin covering the legs.

With clean, dry hands, rub 6 tablespoons of the butter under the skin, pushing it with your fingers over the legs.

Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast muscle so the stem of the thermometer is parallel with the breast bone. (Or, as the end of the roasting time nears, use an instant-read thermometer.)

Rub the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter over the outside of the skin. Spread it evenly so the turkey will brown evenly. Season the turkey with salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the turkey to the preheated oven and roast for about 45 minutes, until it has turned a golden brown. Then cover the turkey with tented aluminum foil to keep the skin from getting too brown. Continue roasting. About 30 minutes before the turkey is done (see roasting chart at right), remove the foil and baste with the pan juices. After 10 minutes, baste again. The total cooking time will be about 3 3/4 hours for a 14-pound turkey; start checking for doneness after 3 hours. The turkey is done when the thigh meat registers 180 degrees and the breast meat registers 170 degrees.

Per serving: 459 calories, 57 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 171 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 185 mg sodium

So How Did the Birds Taste?

What type of turkey tastes best? Frozen or fresh? Free-range or organic? What about wild? With so many turkeys available at supermarkets, specialty stores and by mail, a taste test was in order.

We gathered together a flock of six different birds. We preheated the ovens to 325 degrees. The turkeys were prepared, unstuffed, in an identical manner. We roasted them for between 3 and 3 1/4 hours, until a meat thermometer, stuck in the thigh, read 180 degrees.

Our favorites were a fresh, local, free-range turkey and a fresh, organically raised turkey that hailed from Pennsylvania, both available at specialty markets. But we also discovered that you can purchase a good bird for far less at most supermarkets.

Turkeys are listed in alphabetical order.

BUTTERBALL

Deep-Basted Young Turkey (Frozen)

The country's best-selling, brand-name turkey roasted to a beautiful, deep golden brown. The moist, white and dark meat had a fatty flavor and a salty taste. Some loved it. Some didn't. One tester called it "cafeteria" turkey. Still, the texture of the meat did not suffer, as far as we could tell, from the freezing process. About $1.29 per pound. Available at most supermarkets.

EBERLY

Free-Range Organically Grown Turkey (Fresh)

This plump bird, raised (in Stevens, Pa.) on "certified organically grown grain and fresh spring water with no poultry or fish protein supplements," was a flavor favorite. White meat had a pure, clean taste. The delicious, moist, dark meat was the best we tried. Available at Marvelous Market stores for $2.99 per pound (order by Friday for pickup Tuesday or Wednesday) and Fresh Fields stores at $2.39 per pound (order by Saturday for pickup Tuesday or Wednesday).

EMPIRE

Kosher Turkey (Fresh)

The calibration of our oven's thermostat may have gone haywire. Maybe we got a bad bird. Our turkey was gangly with a tall, slim breast and long, bony legs. The dry white meat was bland and cardboardlike. The dark meat had a gamy flavor that no one liked. About $1.59 per pound. Available at most kosher supermarkets.

MAPLE LAWN FARMS

Free-Range, All Natural Turkey (Fresh)

The free-range from nearby Fulton was an attractive, plump bird. The moist, flavorful white meat was the best we tasted. Dark meat was good as well. "This is how you would hope turkey would taste," said one tester. $1.50 per pound (reserve in advance). Available at Maple Lawn Farms, 11788 Route 216, Fulton; call 301-725-2074. Also available at Fresh Fields stores for $1.79 per pound.

OAKWOOD GAME FARM

Wild Turkey (Frozen)

Our wild bird, which was raised in Princeton, Minn., was on the scrawny side. We expected as much from a wild fowl. The white meat was fine-grained and chewy. The dark meat was tough, with the flavor of duck. $5.99 per pound, shipping not included. Available by mail from: Native Game Food Co., Brighton, Colo.; call 1-800-952-6321.

SHADY BROOK

Prime Young Turkey (Fresh)

This popular brand-name turkey was moist. White meat was a tad chewy but the flavor was nice. Dark meat was delicious. The price was right. About 79 cents per pound. Available at most supermarkets.

Is It Done Yet?

A roasting chart, a guide to the approximate time a turkey of a given weight requires in the oven, is handy to have. Still, every one of the six turkeys we roasted for a taste test reached an internal temperature of 180 degrees well ahead of the prescribed time. What was up? We asked the USDA experts. Their take: "Timing's not everything."

Many variables, such as subtracting the weight of the giblets before calculating the cooking time, can affect the roasting time of the whole bird:

A partially frozen bird requires longer cooking.

A turkey in a dark roasting pan cooks faster than one in a shiny pan.

The depth and size of the pan can reduce heat circulation to all areas of the bird.

Using a foil tent over the the breast of the turkey can slow cooking.

Using a roasting pan with a lid holds in steam and speeds cooking.

An oven-cooking bag can accelerate cooking.

A stuffed bird takes longer to cook.

The oven may heat food unevenly.

Calibration of the oven's thermostat may be inaccurate.

The rack position can have an effect on the evenness of the cooking and heat circulation.

A turkey or its pan may be too large for the oven, thus blocking heat circulation.

The meat thermometer must be placed properly in the thigh joint to get an accurate reading.

TURKEY ROASTING TIMES

Oven Temperature at 325 Degrees

WEIGHT UNSTUFFED STUFFED

8 to 12 pounds 2 3/4 to 3 hrs. 3 to 3 1/2 hrs.

12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3 3/4 hrs. 3 1/2 to 4 hrs.

14 to 18 pounds 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hrs. 4 to 4 1/4 hrs.

18 to 20 pounds 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hrs. 4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hrs.

20 to 24 pounds 4 1/2 to 5 hrs. 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hrs.

NOTE: Remove the turkey from the oven when the breast meat registers 170 degrees and/or the thigh meat registers 180 degrees. This chart is from the National Turkey Federation