Know your heritage

Reemerging from the edge of extinction, Heritage turkeys are finding a niche market among those who disdain the industrial meat complex but who aren’t ready to go the Tofurky route this Thanksgiving.

The common large white turkey, making up 99 percent of supermarket turkeys sold today, is bred primarily for meat. It can’t fly, run or mate, and its life is mostly relegated to crowded, indoor production.

Heritage turkeys, also called “standard” turkeys, were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and their breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland. Their genes are valued as a link to the past, as well for holding traits, such as disease resistance and temperament, critical to the breeds’ long-term survival.

In 1997, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC) found that a number of the standard turkey breeds were facing extinction. Groups like the All-American Turkey Growers Club and the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities had been working to breed and preserve rare turkey varieties, but it wasn’t until the Slow Food movement put the turkey on its radar that Heritage turkeys took hold with more consumers.

Slow Food, an international organization of people committed to preserving unique foods and ways of preparing them, started to promote Heritage turkeys in 2001. Slow Food and the ALBC approached farmers across the country, asking them to raise one of four varieties of turkeys in a “free range, preferably organic and sustainable manner.” In return, the farmers would get $3.50-$4 per pound and free publicity. The next year, 5,000 heritage birds were sold at Thanksgiving. According to the ALBC breeding bird census, there were 1,355 Heritage turkeys in 1997. By 2006, there were 10,404.

Heritage turkeys take longer to reach their market weight and cost quite a bit more than those found in the supermarket. Store-bought turkeys take 18 weeks to reach about 32 pounds and cost about 39 cents a pound, whereas Heritage turkeys take 24-30 weeks to reach their optimal weight, and a search for a Heritage bird on came back with a $120 turkey.

The critics in the New York Times, LA Times and USA Today say it’s worth it, calling the Heritage turkey more flavorful and juicier than store-bought varieties. And the birds and the environments in which they live are healthier for it.