It’s early November as I write this, and my mind has turned from spooky skeletons and dancing ghosts to upcoming holiday feasts. And while plenty of garden produce will feature on this month’s Thanksgiving table, for many of us the holiday is largely a chance to enjoy some tasty turkey, roasted carefully to perfection and enjoyed around a table with family and friends.
As farmers, though, we know there’s so much more potential for Turkey Day than a standard supermarket bird. Most readily available frozen turkeys are conventional breeds, raised for efficiency over taste and too often a glaringly subpar poultry product.
We’re growers, though, and Thanksgiving is a day to honor the hard work it takes to raise the delicious, nutritious foodstuff that sustains us. And to that end, heritage animal breeds—and, for this specific occasion, turkey breeds—truly showcase how superior thoughtfully growing food can be.
Conventional vs. Heritage
What do we mean by “heritage breed”? It’s not a hard-and-fast legal definition, turns out, but more aligned with the loose notion of just being “old timey.”
The Livestock Conservancy terms heritage breeds as “traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers.” As an organization founded to preserve older breeds from extinction, the Livestock Conservancy keeps extensive information about older breeds, particularly animals whose existence is threatened by modern agricultural practices and priorities.
Some dismiss the notion of “heritage” as simply relishing inconvenience, and it’s true that many modern conventional breeds offer a number of advantages, particularly in the pursuit of profitable farming. Conventional turkeys have been developed for maximum feed efficiency, for example, converting rations more easily into meat. For a product sold by the pound, this both eases the farmer’s feed bill and maximizes market potential.
Conventional breeds typically grow faster, too, a real bonus for farmers who need to maximize use of limited land. And conventional breeds can be less costly to stock, too (though good luck breeding them). For farmers, however, these benefits are balanced against cons such as decreased fertility and compromised immunity.
Benefits of Heritage Breeds
While conventional turkey breeds offer distinct advantages, these meat breeds fall short in two important areas: tradition and taste.
First, tradition. You may have heard that Benjamin Franklin was so enamored with domestic wild turkeys that he lobbied for the winged creature to be enshrined as the national bird. But the turkey’s history predates even the idea of the U.S. by many centuries.
First domesticated by Aztec and Mayans more than two millennia ago, turkeys were encountered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, who took them back to Spain and developed the birds into captive breeds. These improved breeds then made their way back to North America in the 1600s, where popularity grew all the more with the 1863 creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday (following almost a century of unofficial celebration) and the 1874 creation of the American Poultry Association.
But as the popularity of turkey traditions grew, 20th century demand for mid-November poultry drove the development of more easily produced (if less satisfying) table birds. Today you can get a supermarket turkey pretty cheaply, putting Thanksgiving within reach of a wide range of people.
But, unfortunately, this agricultural product bears little resemblance to the main course of Thanksgivings past.
The other major tradeoff conventional turkeys present is in taste. In short, heritage turkeys actually taste like something, while conventional breeds typically offer a blander dining experience.
Conventionally raised turkey typically has a saltier flavor, due to brines designed to preserve moisture. (It’s true that heritage birds, with their pasture-worked muscle, are often “drier” on the tongue, though brining can lock in more moisture.)
Conversely, heritage birds have more dark meat with a firmer texture and somewhat “gamey” taste, due in no small part to pasturing practices of small farmers who typically undertake raising heritage birds. And heritage birds, with their longer grow-out time, provide a richer, more deeply textured meat from an extended lifespan before processing.
How to Buy Heritage Turkey
Want to raise some a heritage turkey or two of your own? That’s a great plan—for next year. For this year’s feast, however, you’re going to need to seek out a local farmer to procure your Thanksgiving bird.
You can hit up the local farmers market, though chances are small-scale growers filled up their waitlists months ago. Independent grocers often offer access to locally grown turkeys, though, and online services such as Market Wagon and Local Harvest can help connect you with local growers, too.
In terms of what you’re looking for, remember that “heritage breed” is a loose label, though the Livestock Conservancy does have a few guidelines for how they use the term. (Note that the organization encourages growing older livestock varieties as a means of preserving endangered breeds.)
- Naturally mating with a 70 to 80 percent fertility rate (you can buy chicks, but the breed should be capable of low-maintenance reproduction)
- Long productive outdoor lifespan compared to the two to four years conventional poultry can live, usually indoors
- A slow growth rate, typically ready in 28 weeks compared to the 14 to 18 weeks it takes a conventional bird to mature
Is all this more work? Sure it is. But as we give gratitude for another annual harvest, we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and the animals who feed us to foster an awareness of and appreciation for what sustains us.
And don’t forget to start researching heritage breed turkey now so you can raise your own birds for next Thanksgiving!