The first time I came across the name bourbon red, a heritage breed of turkey, in Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” I was enchanted.
Determined to raise some of these birds, I cracked open my poultry catalogs and discovered a world of exotic-sounding heritage turkey breeds, including Narragansett, black Spanish, royal palm and, particularly appealing to my senses, the chocolate. Although our small family farm is no longer in the turkey business, we did raise some of these breeds. It was an adventure, satisfying from both animal husbandry and culinary perspectives.
The bins of mass-produced commercial turkeys at the supermarket are pretty much guaranteed to be of the broad-breasted white variety, a far cry from the heritage breeds. These birds have become the industry standard because of the very short time it takes for them to produce a tremendous amount of white breast meat. Yes, they’re big and cheap as well as a nutritious choice for your diet. They’re also bland and often fluid-injected. In contrast, the heritage breeds are smaller and produce moist, rich, flavorful meat. It’s a taste sensation perhaps only our great-grandparents are lucky enough to remember.
Numerous chicken breeds abound as well. Laying hens are terrific at egg production, but the meat provides a meager meal. The hefty roasting chickens, a staple of the modern poultry industry, are of the Cornish cross variety. They, like the turkeys, have been selected for the abundance of breast meat favored by consumers. Would you believe they are fully grown in only eight weeks? These “front heavy” birds, especially when raised in severe confinement, tend to topple over and sustain injuries due to poor leg strength.
Heritage breeds of both chickens and turkeys are efficient scavengers and grazers, making the most of their pastures, reducing the insect populations and consuming less commercial feed. Their meat may even be more nutritious, depending on their diet. But most of these breeds are slow growing, often taking two or three times as long to produce a marketable bird that is still smaller than the commercial breeds. Farmers must tend to them longer, and that may result in higher prices.
In our region, we have a few farmers who dabble in raising these birds, but many have returned to raising the commercial varieties. It’s a real dilemma for farmers who would like to be selling a tasty alternative to the commercial variety, but the economic realities of poultry production and consumer expectations of turkey or chicken size and shape motivate them to order the faster-growing chicks.
Many of our local farms compromise: They grow the commercial breeds, but use older, traditional growing methods such as free-range grazing and hormone-, antibiotic- and pesticide-free supplemental feed. The birds have a healthy and humane life, exercising their expanding bodies, ingesting wild and nutritious foods, and wind up on the dinner table looking like the plump birds we’ve come to expect. The flavor, however, is worlds away from industrial poultry. Further, if you can get your hands on a heritage turkey, you are in for a real taste treat. Once you try it you may never go back.
Look for local, fresh poultry; it’s becoming increasingly available. Ask your local farmer about the varieties he or she raises and the production methods used. Encourage the production of heritage breeds where possible, and help introduce diversity back into our farm stock. Many farmers who raise poultry are featured on the Adirondack Harvest website. Visit www.adirondackharvest.com and use the search engine to find specific local foods.
Laurie Davis is an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Reach her at 962-4810, Ext. 404, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.