Ben Franklin would be heartbroken to see what has befallen the turkey, that once-tasty and self-reliant creature he touted as America's national symbol. What graces 99.99 percent of the nation's tables this Thanksgiving is a morbidly obese, genetically engineered parody of that proud bird. The turkey has become, sadly, a turkey.
But there are a few holdouts. An estimated 50,000 birds that are the real deal—heritage breed turkeys the way our forefathers and mothers knew them—will be served at homes and restaurants across the country this Thanksgiving. It may only be a drop in the turkey fryer, but it's a start.
This turkey renaissance is the result of a swelling coalition of farmers, foodies and conservationists working to reverse-engineer the turkey and restore it to its pre-industrialized state when it had taste and could run, jump, fly and breed naturally. They're a clear-eyed bunch immune to any woolly-headed anthropomorphic fantasy out of Disney; the farmers are in it to make money and provide for their families; the foodies like the taste of the end product; and the conservationists want to preserve the biodiversity of our food supply and livestock population.
What we call turkey today is the Broad Breasted White. This agro-engineered breed is a fast-growing protein-producing machine that reaches market weight rapidly and is cost-efficient but can't fly or reproduce naturally. As for taste, there's a reason that top chefs recommend brining the birds before cooking them. They've dominated the American table for the past half-century.
Even as industrial turkey gained dominance in the Thanksgiving pecking order, small flocks of pure-bred heritage turkeys continued to be grown by farmers who treasured them for their diversity and taste. Heritage breed turkeys, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group, are birds descended from a continuous gene pool dating back to before the rise of the Broad Breasted White, breed on their own and have a normal life span. They include such breeds as the American Standard Bronze, Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, Royal Palm Jersey Buff, White Midget and others.
But their survival was not a sure thing and heritage breeds were in danger of disappearing from our dinner tables. When the ALBC conducted a turkey survey in 1997, the breeding stock of heritage birds was down to 1,300, Jeanette Beranger, the ALBC's research and technical program manager, told BusinessNewsDaily. By 2006, there were 10,000, thanks to farmers such as Will Harris and Frank Reese, she said.
Reese, a fourth-generation Kansas farmer, has been raising turkeys for 60 years. He has the oldest continuous standard-bred flock in the U.S., dating back to the establishment of a standard of perfection by the American Poultry Association in 1874.
"These are the turkeys that American farmers raised from 1874 to 1950," he told BusinessNewsDaily. "I still breed them to that standard—you get a nice, marketable bird."
Called the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, his farm produced 9,000 heritage birds this year, which are sold nationally by Dean & Deluca for $90 to $125, and by smaller mom-and-pop stores. He feeds his flock on whatever local grain he can buy. He sells his turkeys for $22 apiece, he said, which yields a profit of $5 to $8 a bird.
'My turkeys can still run, jump and fly'
"We don't have to feed them a bunch of artificial crap to make them taste like something," he said. "A lot of people don't think they like dark meat until they taste one of my birds. My turkeys can still run, jump and fly. The more that turkeys run, jump and fly, the more intense the taste."
Half a continent away from Reese's farm in Lindsborg, Kan., Harris raises American Standard Bronze turkeys on his White Oak Pastures farm in Bluffton, Ga. Like Reese, he represents the fourth generation in the family business, but unlike him, Harris is a newcomer to turkeys: he is a fourth-generation cattleman, tending the same land his great-grandfather settled in 1866.
Harris branched out to add sheep and turkeys to his livestock mix when he became disenchanted with the excesses of industrialized cattle ranching, which had created a monoculture for the cattle.
"It happened in stages," Harris said. "I started to grow disgusted with the excesses of the industrial, commodity beef business. What we're doing now is remarkably similar to what my great-grandfather was doing 149 years ago."
It used to be that turkeys were a barnyard staple because of their ability to fend for themselves, help control insects and provide meat for the table.
"Turkeys are being rediscovered for their multitasking abilities," the ALBC's Beranger said. "The only bug they won't eat is the one they can't catch. They're a really neat tool that fits in with a pest-control program."
Though foodies are given much of the credit for the resurgence of heritage turkeys, the real drivers of the movement were the farmers who rediscovered how well turkeys can round out the biodiversity and economics of their farms.
Harris now raises and sells about 2,000 heritage turkeys each year through Whole Foods on the East Coast and through his farm's website. They range from $75 to $125.
They've bred all the turkey out of the turkey
"My turkeys are similar to wild turkeys," he said. "The can fly, breed, scratch and exhibit turkey behavior. Industrial birds have been bred until they're freaks of nature. They've bred all the turkey out of the turkey. Industrialized turkeys are stupid. They're pretty much content to just eat and defecate."
Harris believes strongly that humane treatment of his animals is about much more than not subjecting them to pain. He believes you have to provide an environment that allows them to express their distinctive behaviors as well.
"Just because you raise your kids and don’t inflict pain doesn't make you a good parent," he said.
His farm has a USDA-inspected on-farm processing facility for both beef and poultry. The processing plants and systems were designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, an internationally recognized authority on humane animal handling and slaughter.
Humane handling and slaughter
Harris feeds his flock cracked grain, but the turkeys supplement their diet by foraging for insects and acorns. The farm uses the Serengeti Plains rotational grazing model, where fields are first foraged by large ruminants such as cattle, followed by smaller ruminants such as sheep and finally by birds.
Last year, the family tradition deepened when Harris's daughter, Jenni, joined the White Oak Pastures team, becoming the fifth Harris generation to raise livestock on the farm.
Harris is proud of his stewardship of the land and his commitment to his animals, environmental sustainability and locally produced food.
"It's what I do for a living," he said. "I have to sell to provide for my family. I'm not apologetic about that."
Ben Franklin would approve.