Food Forum: Turkeys with history

Heritage turkeys can help grocers appeal to consumers who are interested in the origins of their food.

By P. Allen Smith

With the holiday season quickly approaching, that centerpiece of the dinner table is once again moving to the top of consumers’ shopping lists—a big juicy turkey. According to the National Turkey Federation, of the 247 million turkeys raised in the U.S. in 2009, an estimated 46 million were enjoyed at Thanksgiving and 22 million at Christmas. But because modern food production favors the use of a few specialized types of birds, many of the traditional breeds are threatened by extinction. I like to do my part to keep this aspect of our country’s farm history alive by raising heritage poultry breeds such as blue slate turkeys and black turkeys, to name a few.

Whether known as old-fashioned, antique or heirloom, heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. Turkeys must meet every aspect of the criteria determined by the American Poultry Association (APA) before they can be considered heritage breeds. They must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, meaning any turkeys marketed as heritage must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock. They must have a long, productive outdoor lifespan and the genetic makeup that allows them to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems, They must also have a slow growth rate. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in roughly 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.

Since the 1960s, the broad-breasted white turkey has been the primary breed preferred by mass producers of turkeys due to its quick and large growth habit—they reach slaughter weight in about half the time of a heritage turkey. This increased growth rate may mean bigger birds in less time, but it also prevents them from reproducing naturally and being healthy as they grow. One of the purposes of today’s commercial turkey is to produce meat quickly and at the lowest cost possible to consumers. One downside to this model is that it sets into motion a cycle that is contributing to the extinction of our heritage breeds.

Frank Reese, Jr., owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, based in Tampa, Kansas, has been raising and processing heritage poultry for years. The Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch sells heritage turkeys to various retailers and is the only breeder to have the APA seal on its product. This seal, which requires approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lets consumers know that the poultry they are buying has been approved by APA judges and meets all of the criteria for standard-bred birds. “In the 1920s and 1930s, consumers knew that the American Poultry Association seal meant quality,” he says. “And I want today’s consumers to know the same thing. This seal makes our product unique and speaks to the genetics of the birds, which really resonates with the many people who like to know the story of where their food came from.”

In recent years, thanks to both the local food movement and consumers’ all-around increased awareness about the food they put into their bodies, there has been a rise in the number of organic and free-range turkeys in the market and on shoppers’ lists. Heritage turkeys are also becoming more popular due to their flavor and superior biological diversity. While many consumers may balk at paying upwards of $100 or more for a turkey large enough to feed all of their holiday guests, what they’re buying isn’t just an expensive bird. They’re supporting small farms that spend the time and resources to raise and protect a threatened breed. They’re also helping such farmers regain their footing in the marketplace.

If people ate more turkey year-round, it would certainly help the heritage cause. This is slowly becoming the case, with turkey consumption doubling over the past 30 years. Consumers are taking note of the nutritional value of this low fat, high-protein food. However, retailers can always do more to educate their shoppers on the benefits of this versatile food and help them make better choices.

By making heritage turkeys available to their customers, retailers are re-opening a world of culinary possibilities to consumers while supporting both the preservation of these birds and the farmers who raise them. “More grocery stores are becoming aware of the importance of fresh and local food, and want to know where the product comes from,” Frank says. “It means a lot for store owners to know the farm and farmers providing the product.” I look forward to the day where heritage breeds are the preferred choice of retailers and consumers alike.

Little Rock, Ark.-based P. Allen Smith is the host of P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home on PBS, a regular contributor to NBC’s Today show, noted author and accomplished painter.

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