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
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 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, 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 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.
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
The Board of Directors established
the Breed Conservation Award in 1995 to recognize significant
accomplishments by individuals to the survival of rare
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 cattle breed.
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
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.