These Birds are Real Turkeys

by Brian Leaf

Conscious Choice, November 2002

Like other turkeys, the birds in the poultry pen at Blue Valley Gardens in southern Wisconsin are headed for the Thanksgiving platter. However, the feasts that Matthew Smith's hand-raised birds star in are more than a meal. They're the center of a national movement to save "remnant" strains of turkeys that may have graced the table of your grandmother's mother.

Smith's turkeys are legacy strains -- Narragansett, Bourbon Reds, Jersey Buffs, and Standard Bronze turkeys. They carry the genes of Thanksgiving dinners past. Prized for their taste, they nearly disappeared under the Darwinian economics of modern agriculture that prizes high yield and low production cost -- a factory approach with little concern for the animals or food aesthetics.

But a taste conscious organization, Slow Food USA, has launched a campaign to save legacy turkeys. Around the country they've enlisted farmers like Smith, who practice sustainable agriculture at Blue Valley Gardens, 40 rolling acres about 20 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, to raise legacy strains. Nearly 5,000 birds -- more than 150 in Chicago -- were sold by Slow Food this year.

At $3.50 to $5 a pound, legacy turkeys are more expensive than the ubiquitous dollar-a-pound Butterball. That doesn't matter to Eva Wedel, a Crystal Lake music teacher, who says she'll pay the price for fresh, great tasting turkeys that were raised humanely and naturally. "I don't care how much it costs. That doesn't matter," says Wedel, who will prepare one of Smith's birds to celebrate the holiday with her relatives at their family farm in Argyle, Wisconsin. "What matters to me is that it's a legacy turkey. I'm certainly willing to pay for something like this that keeps many strains in circulation.

"This is putting your money where your mouth is. I'm interested in promoting small farms and organic foods, small businesses and healthy fisheries. There are people who are willing to put more of their disposable income into food [when] they agree with the philosophy."

Bucking the Trend of Broadbreasted Turkeys

It's big business philosophies that dominate the nation's turkey production. The eight-billion-dollar-a-year industry has grown the past 25 years -- buoyed by consumers seeking a source of low-fat protein. Between 1975 and 2000, per capita consumption of turkey grew from eight to 17.75 pounds, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Nearly all the 267 million turkeys Americans eat each year are Broadbreasted Whites. Through the tweaking of its genes by selective breeding, the Broadbreast provides the poultry industry with a quick-growing, meat-laden bird with an oversized breast that can be quickly and cleanly processed. While it may be the perfect bird for mass production, perfection takes its toll.

For the Broadbreasts, the tolls include a breast so unwieldy that males cannot mount females to reproduce. Hatcheries must artificially inseminate them to perpetuate the species and the industry. The large breast causes some birds to topple over when they walk by the time they mature in 15 to 18 weeks at 15 pounds for hens and 35 pounds for Toms. Their weight can cause leg problems and heart abnormalities.

A Broadbreast's home life is nothing to aspire to, either. To maximize profits, commercial birds are packed together by the thousands in sheds and buildings while they are being raised. Each bird has an average of three square feet of living space, according to the Web site The beaks of commercial birds are clipped so they don't peck each other in their tight quarters. The birds may receive antibiotics, but the National Turkey Federation dismisses concerns over potential drug residues, saying the drugs are out of the meat before it is on a supermarket shelf. Their diet consists of corn and soybean meal, water, vitamins, and minerals.

Animal rights activists have protested not only the conditions under which livestock, such as the Broadbreasts, are raised, but many protest the act of meat eating altogether. Nonetheless, it is judicious meat eating that is the only way that legacy breeds will be saved. In other words, consumers need to buy these birds in order for the niche industry to survive.

Legacy breeds may find themselves on the wrong side of the commercial gene pool but they possess something factory birds don't: rich taste. Italian food critic Carlo Petrini was troubled that industrialization was standardizing food flavor and purging from the palate thousands of food varieties and flavors. In 1986, he founded Slow Food. In the U.S., turkeys are Slow Food's highest profile campaign. Slow Food has enlisted family farmers like Smith, who practice sustainable agriculture and humane livestock farming, to grow legacy birds, keeping the strains alive for flavor diversity while providing niche growers with a new profit center.

"They taste better," Martins of Slow Food USA says. "That's why we did it. History wouldn't have been enough to save them. And they were on the brink of extinction. We were on the verge of losing a part of our taste culture. "We hope that people will support this subversive movement to defend our right to taste."

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), a Pittsboro, North Carolina, non-profit working to save 100 livestock breeds from extinction, had three of the four Slow Food birds -- Narragansett, Jersey Buffs and Standard Bronzes -- on its critical list, meaning there were fewer than 500 breeding birds in North America. Bourbon Reds were listed as rare, with fewer than a thousand breeding birds.

Saving legacy breeds is critical because the Broadbreasted Whites have lost many of the traits that make turkeys, well, turkeys. They're genetically damaged, says the ALBC's Don Bixby, and the industry could be just a virus or disease away from wiping out the breeds. "We've only used Broadbreasted Whites commercially for 40 years and 40 generations of very narrow genetic selection," says Bixby. "It's what we call in-breeding. It's the issue of mono-cropping. Because they are genetically identical, they'll all be susceptible to whatever comes along."

Bixby says legacy birds provide Thanksgiving meals a whole different taste experience. "This is not your Butterball, canola-injected, processed-in-ice-water bird," he says. "The meat is much firmer. I discovered that I don't eat as much turkey because the gustatory experience is so different. The taste and texture is more pronounced. It's a much more satisfying experience."

The taste comes from the environment in which legacy strains are raised. "Putting turkeys back outdoors where they can exercise, be in fresh air, forage for food -- it's good for them, us, and the environment," Bixby says. He adds that the meat of legacy birds tend to be dryer than commercial birds so he tells people to find a pre-1940 cookbook for a recipe to prepare them.

North Americans have been fixing turkeys for thousands of years. Turkeys, one of the few types of livestock domesticated in North America, were tamed in Mexico around 100 A.D. The first birds arrived in Europe in the early 1500s with Spaniards -- some say Cortez brought them back -- who returned from their exploits in Mexico with turkeys tamed by the natives. Turkeys reached England in the 1520s.

While the popular belief is that the Pilgrims came to the New World and found forests filled with wild turkeys with which to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, the truth is that they brought domestic turkeys with them when they left England in 1620.

As with all livestock, farmers tinkered over the centuries with the birds, trying to develop varieties that looked better, resisted disease, grew faster, delivered more meat, had a better taste, or could make them more money. And legacy turkeys are no exception. They were bred for commerce.

In the U.S., gene tweakers developed the Narragansett turkey named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. It's a cross between the native Eastern Wild Turkey and domestic birds brought back to North America by New World colonists, according to the ALBC. The Narragansett became the standard for New England's turkey industry.

The Jersey Buff made the scene in the 1870s but by the early 1900s was already a rare strain. It was difficult to produce birds that fit the standard color, which was of value because its white pinfeathers were hard to detect once the bird was processed. In Kentucky, breeders used the Jersey Buff to breed the Bourbon Red. The Bourbon Red's heavy breast and rich taste made it more salable and profitable than the Jersey Buff.

Another legacy strain, the Bronze, ironically helped launch the commercialized Broadbreasted strains. In the late 1920s, a Washington farmer crossed an English strain with an American Bronze and came up with a bird that grew to nearly 50 pounds. By the 1940s, the Broadbreasted Bronze -- another strain that needs artificial insemination to survive -- had displaced the Bronze as the bird of choice.

By the 1950s, processors that didn't want birds with dark pinfeathers -- because they looked unsightly on a naked Thanksgiving turkey -- were rewarded with the Broadbreasted White, a bird that yielded a lot of meat and was unmarred by pinfeather discoloration. It continues to reign as bird of the masses.

For 10 years, you could find the Broadbreasted Whites at Blue Valley Gardens, the farm that Smith, a University of Wisconsin horticulture graduate, bought in 1984. He lives there with his wife, Susan Lampert-Smith, their 14-year-old son Ben and 10-year-old daughter Lily.

Unlike frozen factory birds, Smith's Broadbreasts were raised in small flocks, hand-fed and ready for delivery to customers at Thanksgiving. "The hens would be in the low teens, 16 or 17 pounds, and the toms would dress out at 28 pounds. That was in 18 weeks," says Smith. "When people would pick their birds up some would ask me what you do with all of that turkey. I'd say, 'Eat a lot of leftovers.'"

Blue Valley Gardens brings about a dozen crops to market each year -- broiler chickens and eggs, strawberries, Shiitake and oyster mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, garlic, and herbs. Smith is best know for his white asparagus, some of which ends up on the plates of guests at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago via an organic foods marketing group, Home Grown Wisconsin. About 75 percent of his produce is sold locally, much of it at Madison's famed Farmers' Market, the Saturday morning affair that brings thousands of buyers to the square around the Wisconsin Capitol from spring to fall.

Smith says that he saw a New York Times story on legacy turkeys last fall and knew his customers would buy them. "I went full bore into it," he says. He ordered three breeds -- Narragannsetts, Bourbon Reds, and Jersey Buffs -- from hatcheries. The first birds arrived in May, a full two months before he'd start raising the season's Broadbreasts. But the legacy birds grow slower, taking 10 weeks longer than the Whites to mature.

"They're more like wild turkeys," says Smith. "They're more into the greens and things like that and less into the grains. And of course they're not going to put on a lot of weight eating the greens."

Smith planned to raise the turkeys outside in a "free-range" environment, but great horned owls killed several of his birds. The 55 survivors are now housed in a 2,000-square-foot pen covered with a netting where they can roam outdoors, eating bugs, grass, melon rinds, corn husks and silk, cabbage, other greens, and grain. They dig depressions in the ground and lay in the Wisconsin sunshine. They roost at night in a shed, off the ground, safe from owls, raccoons, coyotes, and other predators.

Next year, Smith plans on expanding the poultry pen. And he says he's going to keep a male and female Narragannsett and try his hand at breeding. One of the flock will also be prepared for his family's Thanksgiving platter. "My vices are eating good food and drinking good beer," he jokes. "I don't raise any animals and vegetables that I don't care to eat."

Brian Leaf, a freelance writer based in Rockford, Illinois, writes stories about business and the environment. Contact him at