November 21, 2003: 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” 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
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
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, www.reeseturkeys.com),
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 at www.albc-usa.org/alerts/Oct13_03.htm)
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 (www.marysturkeys.com)
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
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.
In 1999, Glenn
Drowns, the original turkey hero, was recognized
for his efforts to preserve rare breeds. Here’s
an excerpt from the speech announcing the award.
By Donald E. Bixby
The Board of Directors established the Breed
Conservation Award in 1995 to recognize significant
accomplishments by individuals to the survival
of rare breeds.
In the past we have recognized: Kenneth and Winifred
Hoffman of Illinois for their work on behalf of
Dutch Belted cattle; Lyle McNeal of Utah for conservation
strategies of Navajo-Churro sheep and his efforts
in re-connecting this breed with the Navajo people;
David and Millie Holderread of Oregon for the
conservation and promotion of rare breeds of waterfowl;
Rea Swan of Kentucky for recovery of the Rocky
Mountain horse; and John Wheelock of Vermont for
his role in the survival of the Milking Devon
The 1998 Breed Conservation Award was presented
to “Mr. Dominique,” otherwise known
as, Mark Fields of Missouri, for his exceptional
leadership in the conservation of Dominique chickens.
The Board of Directors presented this year’s
award at the ALBC Annual Conference in May. The
1999 recipient is dedicated to the conservation
of turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and
heirloom vegetables. Today, we especially honor
him for his work with turkeys. As an individual,
his contributions are making the difference between
extinction and survival of several kinds of turkeys.
For example, this year he is responsible for the
re-discovery of the gray turkey variety.
It is my pleasure on behalf of the ALBC Board
of Directors to present the 1999 Breed Conservation
Award to Glenn Drowns of Calamus, Iowa. We honor
him for his outstanding contributions to the survival
of rare breeds and the conservation of important
poultry genetic resources.
Glenn Drowns operates Sand Hill Preservation
Center and teaches in the public school system
in Calamus, Iowa. We appreciate his work in promoting
and conserving poultry genetics.