Just a few short years ago, even the most adventurous eaters hadn’t heart of ‘heritage breed’ turkeys. Now you can’t step into a specialty market without tripping over a Bourbon Red or a Jersey Buff. This Thanksgiving, we’re fortunate to be able to give thanks for bird options that go beyond the factory farm Butterball, and for the farmers and activists who weren’t willing to let these older breeds go extinct.
In Grist this week, Claire Thompson writes about the resurgence of the heritage turkey. As the food system industrialized, nearly everyone started raising Broad Breasted Whites, which we’ve come to think of as the classic Thanksgiving turkey. In 1997, when the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) went looking for older breeds of turkey (those with bloodlines that go back farther than the Broad Breasted White takeover, also known as “heritage”), they only found 1,300 birds in the entire country.
What’s the problem with that? First of all, industrial turkeys don’t taste like much – they were bred for size, not flavor. Secondly, lack of diversity within a population is a great way to set ourselves up for disaster.
“When it comes to turkeys, or any kind of food, the existence of multiple, diverse varieties (i.e. biodiversity) is crucial to food security. ‘The analogy we like to use is a stock portfolio,’ says Alison Martin, also of the ALBC. You wouldn’t want to put all your savings behind one stock, but ‘essentially that’s what commercial agriculture has done. In a time of global climate change and economic stress, doesn’t it make sense to have options for other production methods?’”
Don’t worry: Slow Food USA had a plan! In 2001, they added heritage turkeys to their Ark of Taste, a “catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction.” In cooperation with ALBC and pioneering farmers, they promoted the raising and eating of heritage turkeys, and now the old school fowl are back in a big way.
“ALBC did another turkey census in 2006, and found that the breeding population had shot up to 10,000—or nearly ten times what it was in 1997.”
A big improvement, but there’s still a ways to go. According to the National Turkey Federation, the U.S. produced more than 244,000,000 turkeys last year, which means heritage birds are still very much in the minority – well less than 1% of all turkeys sold. They’re also expensive, which means they don’t appeal to everyone, but organic farmer Will Harris knows his customers are out there.
“Heritage breeds are pricier than your average supermarket turkey—an eight to 12-pound American Standard Bronze from Harris’ White Oak Pastures farm goes for $75, whereas the average price for a conventionally raised 16-pound turkey this year will be $21.57, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Harris acknowledges that he serves a niche, and can’t make his birds available to many of the ‘big-box shoppers’ in his area. ‘The heritage breeds that I raise are appreciated by consumers who have studied the food production system and made some conscious decisions about what they’re going to eat, he said. They may also forgo the old one-pound-per-person rule in favor of smaller portions.’”
While there’s still progress to be made, the folks at Slow Food and ALBC, companies like Heritage Foods USA, and the farmers who have committed to raising heritage breeds have already made a big difference. Now it’s our turn to put our money toward the kind of farming (and eating) we believe in. Still need a heritage turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner? Check out our Good Bird Guide to great turkeys across Brooklyn.