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Are Heritage Turkeys Worth the Money?


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The Oldest Continuous Flock of Standard Bred Turkeys in America

A turkey like none you've ever tasted. This year, it's possible to get a heritage bird for Thanksgiving. We've been hearing the complaints for decades: Modern turkey is a shadow of its former self — a dry, tasteless excuse for what used to be a flavorful, succulent bird.

And for the last couple of years, we've been hearing about heritage turkeys — old-fashioned varieties that are the heirloom tomatoes of the poultry world. Now, you can find out for yourself.

A small group of farmers and conservationists are reviving heritage turkeys. With the marketing support of Slow Food USA, about 30 farmers nationwide are raising varieties such as the Narragansett, Standard Bronze, Black and Bourbon Red.

The familiar Broadbreasted White, bred for its prodigious quantity of white meat and its ability to grow quickly to enormous size, is all that's been available to most of us. Allowed to grow older than these commercial birds, heritage turkeys put on an extra layer of fat. Proponents say this gives them deeper flavor and that exercise gives them firmer texture.

Heritage turkey breeding programs are so new, and the orders are required so far in advance (when you order one, it's basically custom-raised for you), that only a few thousand birds are available to restaurants or home cooks throughout the country each year.

It's too late to place an order directly with a California farm for a fresh bird for this Thanksgiving, but there are a few options open to those who want a heritage turkey. Kansas turkey farmer struggles to maintain a part of our heritage

The Kansas City Star


Frank Reese Jr. stands knee deep in American Bronze turkeys, a premium-priced flock that would surely cause the average American consumer sticker shock. Instead of hovering around $1 a pound like you'd pay in the supermarket, one of his rare heritage birds can cost up to $7 a pound.

Like any other Thanksgiving feast centerpiece, Reese's birds make the journey from farm to a federally inspected processing plant to Thanksgiving dinner tables across America. But if not for Reese's passion, these old breeds -- such as the American Bronze, the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red -- might have been lost forever. "The original Thanksgiving turkey, the ones our grandparents ate until the 1950s, are gone," says Reese, 50, the owner of Good Shepherd Ranch just outside Lindsborg, Kan., a bucolic Swedish farming community in central Kansas. Reese shudders at the thought.

"This is a truly American icon. This is the bird that fed Americans for 200 years," he says. Once found on nearly every farm across the country, the heritage turkey was edged off the carving platter in the 1960s in a rush to mass-produce our food. In just a decade, the original American Bronze and its offspring were almost extinct, replaced by bigger-breasted birds bearing plenty of white meat. But what consumers didn't bargain for was something drier and blander-tasting than those more graceful old birds of our past.

"Whenever I give anybody one of my Thanksgiving birds, I tell them, `Don't deep fry it. Don't inject it. Don't put garlic and sage all over it,' " Reese says. That's because his birds retain a natural layer of fat that makes them more succulent. Later, when Reese pulls a roasting pan out of the oven in his kitchen and peeks under the foil, he marvels at the clear, golden broth the meat swims in.A taste reveals a dark meat that's almost gamy, with a flavor that lingers.

Because it's a more muscular bird, the meat is toothier, too. And the white meat is not as snowy white as the Broad Breasted White, the current industry standard.Even the actual shape of the bird is so different that today's shallow, rectangular roasting pans aren't large enough to accommodate the longer legs and keel bones of the heritage birds.

Built for breed This year Reese raised 3,000 heritage turkeys, barely a blip on the radar screen when compared to the 270 million mass-produced turkeys hunkering down in your grocer's freezer case.

The American Poultry Association Web site lists eight breeds of heritage turkeys. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy 1997 census turned up just 8,200 heritage turkeys. Earlier this year the ALBC recognized Reese for his outstanding work in the conservation of heritage turkeys. Slow Foods USA, an international nonprofit educational organization, has tracked down about 40 heritage turkey breeders in the country, but Reese's flock is among the largest. 

As we stand in the turkey pasture, Reese proudly displays his flock -- birds that, although earth-tone, are every bit as fanciful as a peacock. Then he points to a single Broad Breasted White hen whose feathers are scraggly and plucked bare in places. "They know she's not right," he says. "When you've changed the natural structure of the way the bird should be built, you're going against nature. "The Broad Breasted Whites can be raised in as little as two months. They have shorter legs and are so top heavy they often have trouble walking and are virtually incapable of breeding.

By contrast, heritage turkeys take seven months to mature and are ill-suited for factory farming because they require room to roost and roam. Later, Reese thumbs through a slim, maroon-fabric-covered volume titled Standards of Perfection, published in 1894. He points to a line drawing of the American Bronze, first recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874. "I care as much about the aesthetics as the production," he says.

"They're supposed to have that beautiful copper all the way down the front of it and all the way down the back." Although the American Bronze is actually the bird most of us associate with Thanksgiving, Reese worries efforts to save them could backfire if the quality of the breeding suffers.

"We can push the turkey to get people who will buy it just for the sake of trying to help save the bird, but unless they get a quality bird to sit on their table, they won't come back," he says. The turkey must sell itself." I'll know we're there when someone tells me they want a Bronze turkey and they no longer say `free-range' or `heritage.' "

Paying the price

Reese's passion for poultry runs deep. For years Reese bred his turkeys even though there wasn't much of a market for them.

Then in 2001 he got a call from Slow Foods USA, an organization that seeks to preserve rare and endangered foods by bringing them back to the American table. "It's not just about cataloging animals or foods, it's about taking action," says Robert LaValva, director of the Ark Project for Slow Food USA, which is based in New York City. "The bottom line is, unless people consume them -- by buying them and eating them -- they're not going to survive."

Slow Food USA put the heritage turkey on its Ark USA, a modern-day Noah's Ark spotlighting endangered indigenous foods. Then it set up an arm called Heritage Food to handle the buying, processing and selling of the turkeys for Reese and other farmers. Last year the organization sold 700 turkeys.

This year the project is sold out at 1,100 turkeys, despite the hefty price tag -- $169, plus shipping costs -- for a 24-pound bird. "We think it's not a question of affording it so much as choosing how to spend your money. We think there is a really promising future for this kind of project to grow," LaValva says.

"It's a very small market," admits Heather Hands, owner of Local Harvest, a Kansas City organic produce market and grocery that promotes locally produced foods. "They are quite pricey. But there are people who want the heritage turkeys just like there are people who want heirloom vegetables, and (they) are willing to pay a little more." For the first time, Hands will sell a small number of Reese's turkeys on a first-come, first-serve basis for $6.15 per pound.

For comparison's sake, customers who choose to buy Campo Lindo's free-range turkeys will pay closer to $2.75 a pound. Yet even as interest in preservation grows, it's doubtful the price of heritage turkeys will decrease because of the increased time investment required to raise them. Plus there's the extra money Reese must spend to feed the turkeys organic feed of corn, soy and oats, which costs $532 per ton, or roughly twice as much as conventional feed that contains a higher percentage of fat.

Back From The Brink

Growing up, my youngest brother used to tell tales of how turkeys were so stupid they could drown themselves in a rainstorm simply by looking up. However, contrary to popular folklore, turkeys are not necessarily stupid, unless they're bred that way.

"My turkeys are still smart," Reese says in a thank-you-very-much tone. They are, indeed, curious animals and greet me with a gobbling sound that swells and reverberates, reminding me of a sort of bobble-head doll soundtrack. They peck at my jeans pocket now and then to see if they can get my attention. Anything shiny, especially the rings on my hands, which dangle at eye level, attract their attention because turkeys must ingest rocks and sand to grind and digest their food. As Reese shows me the turkey pasture he built for the birds to roam in, they follow him like a dog following his master.

Meanwhile four, huge shaggy Newfoundland and Commodore dogs keep predators at bay. Wild turkeys were roaming the land when Columbus reached the New World, but it wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to crossbreed them with European varieties. The American Bronze was considered the most stalwart of the breeds. From its genetic stock came the Narragansett, which is the reverse color pattern of the Bronze, as well as the other possible variations: White Holland, Slate and Black.

Later came the Bourbon Red, which was recognized by the APA in 1910. The Beltsville Small White and the Royal Palm, a purely ornamental bird, round out the list of standard breeds Although Reese makes his living as a nurse/anesthetist, he has been a champion of the turkey since he was 5 years old. He recalls that the first story he ever wrote while attending a one-room schoolhouse in Salina was titled "Me and My Turkey." Reese grew up tending poultry on his parents' farm and showing the birds as part of his 4-H projects starting at age 8, when his father bought him 25 Broad Breasted Bronze poults.

For the last 20 years, Reese worked closely with his mentor, Norman Kardosh, a poultry breeder from the Stockton/Alton, Kan., area. Like Kardosh, Reese never married. "I think it's because you get so focused you just don't take the time," he says. But like children, Reese says he'll provide for his birds in his will. "The whole reason to do this is to keep these birds from going extinct," Reese says.

Every October, Kardosh came to Reese's farm to help him choose his breeders. Reese places a snapshot of Kardosh on the table. He fights back tears as he recalls how Kardosh, who died in January, would not be there to help him select his breeders this year. Although Kardosh didn't necessarily understand America's fickle appetites, Reese says he understood his prized birds had a fighting chance to make it back from the brink of extinction. "I think he was happy because, in the end, it might be their salvation," Reese says