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Heritage turkeys are old-fashioned breeds of turkeys raised in a very specific way. Conservation organizations which focus on livestock have promoted the breeding and sale of heritage turkeys to preserve these old breeds for the enjoyment of future generations. Many people have never tasted heritage turkey, since these breeds were displaced by the Broad Breasted White Turkey in the 20th century. Consumers who have experienced heritage turkey say that these breeds tend to have a better flavor and a texture which is far superior to the Broad Breasted White.
Turkeys have been pursued as food animals in North America for centuries, and many Native American communities selectively bred regional turkeys to be optimal food animals. When Europeans reached the United States, they continued to the tradition of turkey breeding, developing a number of hardy, beautiful birds which also yielded high quality meat. In 1874, the American Poultry Association recognized a number of specific turkey breeds in its Turkey Standard of Perfection, including the Narragansett, White Holland, and Standard Bronze, among others. Other breeds recognized by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy include the Jersey Buff, Bourbon Red, Slate, Black Spanish, and Royal Palm turkey breeds.
These heritage turkey breeds take more time to mature than the Broad Breasted White. A heritage turkey grows to adulthood in around 30 weeks, a marked contrast with the 18 weeks needed for a Broad Breasted White. Livestock producers began promoting the Broad Breasted White in the mid 20th century because the breed yielded a high volume of meat and it was relatively easy to raise; at this point, these birds have been so over bred that they cannot reproduce on their own, and many Broad Breasted Whites have difficulty walking. By the 1960s, heritage turkey breeds had almost disappeared.
In order to be considered a heritage turkey by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a bird must meet three requirements. The first is that the birds must be able to mate naturally, and they must be the products of naturally bred parents. A heritage turkey must also live a “long productive outdoor lifespan,” with breeding hens and toms living for up to seven years. The birds must live outdoors and be hardy enough to survive outdoor conditions, and chicks produced for food should also be allowed access to a wide variety of forage and conditions. Finally, a heritage turkey has a slow growth rate which allows it to mature into a fully adult bird before it is slaughtered.
Several groups including Slow Food promote the heritage turkey as part of America's culinary heritage. Many heritage turkeys are quite beautiful with distinct, showy plumage, making them ideal poster children for their kindred. Markets and butchers offer heritage turkeys to people who want them; an order for a heritage turkey should be placed well in advance, since most markets sell out, especially around major holidays like Thanksgiving.
I really applaud all the farmers out there who are starting to raise heritage animals and organic meats. There is a whole different world of animal farming that our country is founded on, and I think that we would do well to return to it, as much as possible.
As you might guess, I am a huge advocate of eating local food as well, and of course I try to buy from the farmers that live around me as much as possible.
Although I realize that that's not feasible for everybody, I think that even making little changes in diet -- buying local when you can, getting the odd free range turkey or organic free range chicken, helping fund
farmers to raise heritage breeds, and trying to only buy from stores that support the local economy -- are all very feasible, doable things.
And you know what they say -- it all adds up. So good for you, heritage turkey raisers, and the people who support them. This is exactly what we need to get back to our roots.
Very interesting article -- I have just started looking into heritage farming, because my grandparents have started raising Red Devon cattle (which are heritage cows), and the more I learn about it, the more interested I become.
There are so many different species of animals out there that we never even think about. For instance, if I had read this article before, I would have thought that there were only two kinds of turkeys -- wild turkeys and domestic turkeys.
Now I know better -- I wonder what my local grocer would say if I asked him for a White Holland or a Black Spanish heirloom turkey?
Thanks for such an interesting article -- good job, guys.