Rodale Institute knows the importance of proper livestock management. Read this guest post about how heritage turkeys can spice up your dinner table.

This holiday season, thousands of Americans will forgo their normal Large White turkey to enjoy a different kind of bird. “Heritage” turkeys are enjoying a culinary comeback.

Thanks to the joint efforts of breed conservationists, farmers and a consumer’s movement called Slow Food demand for heritage turkeys surged in 2003. A new niche in a corporate controlled market, heritage turkeys are helping bring turkey genetics and profits back to the farm.

Heritage Turkeys

“Heritage” is a new term for what the industry calls “standard” turkeys. These birds, eight varieties in total, were bred according to the color and stock Standard of Perfection recognized by the American Poultry Association in the late 1800s.

Smart, colorful birds raised in barnyards and pastures, standard turkeys — such as the Narragansett, Buff and Slate — provided meat, eggs, and on-farm pest control until the 1950s. As the turkey industry became more concentrated, large corporations eventually monopolized turkey production and breeding. By the 1970s commercially bred birds, developed solely for meat production and easy processing, displaced the standard turkeys.

The Large White turkey now accounts for 90 percent of the commercial market with breeding stock held by three international companies – Hybrid Turkeys, British United Turkeys and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms. Though today’s turkey is cheaper and more plentiful, it’s come at a price.

Bred solely for meat, the Large Whites have lost their natural abilities to fly, run or mate – a fact that raises concerns for many consumers interested in animal welfare issues. Widespread routine antibiotic use to prevent illness, a common practice in large-scale turkey operations, is also raising public health concerns. For all it’s white breast meat, more people are starting to think the Large Whites lack flavor.

In 1997 the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC), an organization that conserves rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, surveyed North American turkey populations to assess the genetic status of the breed. They made an alarming discovery — a number of the standard turkey varieties including the Buff, Narragansett and Slate were on the verge of extinction. Bourbon Red was close behind.

As one of the only domesticated animals to originate in North America, preservation of the rare breeds is like preserving a historical building or rare document. It’s a piece of American history. For turkey growers, heritage birds hold important genetic traits (such disease resistance and temperament) critical to the turkey’s long-term health and survival.

Slow Food quick to the rescue

Though groups like the All-American Turkey Growers Club and the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities worked for years to breed and preserve rare turkey varieties, it is a unique partnership with consumers that is catapulting heritage turkeys to the radar screen of food lovers nationwide.

Slow Food is an international movement of people committed to the perpetuation of unique foods and processes endangered by agricultural standardization. Started in Italy 22 years ago, Slow Food is now 80 countries and 70,000 members strong.

Among its projects is the Ark of Taste. Primarily a media tool, Slow Food uses it to identify and promote plant and animal breeds in jeopardy of extinction. In doing so, Slow Food hopes to build awareness and create market incentives for farmers to protect them.

When Slow Food USA formed in 2000, Dr. Don Bixby, technical programs director for ALBC, saw an opportunity to help the turkey. He nominated four varieties – the American Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and Narragansett – for entry into the USA Ark. The turkey’s story — which he says is “so compelling and so American” — was a natural fit.

The turkeys joined the USA Ark in 2001 and Slow Food started to promote them. The birds’ dark, moist and flavorful meat soon became a hit with chefs and food writers.

In 2002, 5,000 heritage birds were sold at Thanksgiving. This year the turkey population has doubled. Though still a tiny fraction of the industry’s 270 million birds, it’s a giant step toward the heritage turkey’s preservation.

Heritage turkey farmers

With market demand for the turkeys growing rapidly in 2003, Slow Food and ALBC approached growers across the country to raise heritage birds by a set of production standards. Farmers agreed to raise birds from one of the four varieties and promised to grow the birds in a “free range, preferably organic, and sustainable manner.” In return, farmers would get a price of $3.50 to 4.00 per pound and free publicity.

According to Patrick Martin, Slow Food USA’s director, the grower response has been “very positive.”

Heritage birds command a premium (consider a store-bought turkey at 39 cents per pound) because of their genetic value and added labor costs. They are, on average, much smaller birds (10 lbs for hens, 12 lbs for toms) that take twice as long to mature as the Large Whites. Still, Frank Reese, an experienced heritage turkey farmer (Good Shepherd Ranch in Linsborg, Kansas), estimates that if done properly, growers can make a nice profit of $60 to $80 per bird. Thanks to careful selection and breeding, his heritage birds average 18 – 33 pounds. (Reese and other heroes in conserving heritage turkeys are recognized by the ALBC)

Has the expensive price turned people away? Not yet, where marketing is done well. Well-established players in the free range and organic turkey industry, Mary and Rick Pittman of Mary’s Turkeys in Madera, California agreed to raise heritage turkeys for Slow Food this year. Seeing the potential market for the birds, they raised an additional 1,000 Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds. By the end of October they sold out of heritage turkeys and continue to get requests.

Amy Kenyon, who raises turkeys and grass-fed livestock (Skate Creek Farms in Meredith, New York), expects to sell out of her Bourbon Reds and Standard Bronze this year. She sees potential for many more next year.

For farmers that direct market, Slow Food’s free publicity is an added benefit. “Their access to food writers and restaurants has been key to increasing awareness about the turkeys,” says Bixby. Articles in the New York Times, LA Times, USA Today and many regional papers have increased interest in the birds and their growers.

As Mary’s Turkeys prepare to sell their birds nationally this year, Mary Pittman says the added farm publicity has been invaluable. “All it took was one-half hour radio talk show” with food guru Gene Burns to help promote the farm. Though it aired in August, she continues to get calls daily about that show.

Besides the financial rewards, growers enjoy the lively character the birds bring to the farm. “You either love them or hate them,” says Reese who raised 3,000 heritage turkeys this year. He fondly adds, “They’ll get into everything.” Kenyon admits that their turkeys have had “the run of the farm,” but she adds that the turkeys have been fun to raise and profitable as well.

Heritage turkeys aren’t without their challenges. Managing predators, modifying consumer expectations and finding adequate processing facilities are important management challenges for turkey growers. Like any new venture, Reese says growers should “expect two to five years to establish markets” and hone their systems.

Are heritage turkeys a fad or a long-term market? If groups like Slow Food continue to spark consumer interest, Dr. Bixby thinks these breeds will enjoy a revival. He’s hopeful that more awareness of heritage turkeys will pave the way for other rare breed markets as well. In the meantime, for innovative farmers willing to raise poultry, heritage turkeys are an opportunity to diversify, make money and preserve an American tradition.

Despite all the current hoopla, Reese believes the heritage turkey’s fate will truly be secure only when growers bring turkey breeding back to the farm.

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