We are now raising turkeys for sales to customers. We raise heritage turkeys, as distinct from the hybrids developed by the commercial industry for commercial distribution to supermarkets. That expression has now been given a specific definition by the USDA, and it is discussed below.
They are breeds that may once have been commercially important, or may never have been favored by the commercial industry. They have several characteristics in common. They are rare and endangered among domestic poultry. They were developed in this country. They are beautiful, which is pretty fun.
Like many of my farm enterprises, this one started because I wanted better turkey than I could get in the store, or than anyone else seemed to be able to get. My extended family, comprised of otherwise sensible people, have store-bought turkey for Thanksgiving. I love them all, but I leave town. Still, I thought, I might like it if the quality could be ratcheted up. I might like a roast turkey that was to supermarket turkey what farm-raised chicken was to supermarket chicken. The other thing that confused me was why people who said they liked turkey never ate turkey more than once or twice a year, except for the shredded stuff from the deli section. Heritage turkeys are a little smaller, and most importantly, they take much longer to mature. The second fact is of great importance because you will not get the same bland taste or texture of store-bought commercial turkey. Personally, I think store-bought turkey tastes the way I imagine a cotton bale would taste if you bit into it. I am willing to give up fork-tender texture and use a knife, like a big person, as you would on any other meat worth eating.
Why not have turkey as often as chicken? There are breeds of turkey that were developed in this country to fit the needs of the smaller, post-war family. The Beltsville White, named for the research station of the same name in Beltsville, Maryland, is just such a smaller turkey. I am raising Beltsville Whites for sale this year, along with an assortment drawn from the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, and Narragansett breeds. Heritage breed turkeys are a little smaller, and most importantly, they take much longer to mature. The second fact is of great importance because you will not get the same bland taste or texture of store-bought commercial turkey. Personally, I think store-bought turkey tastes the way I imagine a cotton bale would taste if you bit into it. I am willing to give up fork-tender texture and use a knife, like a big person, as you would on any other meat worth eating.
The expression, heritage turkey, has now been given a specific definition which requires, among other things, that the turkey is a member of a distinct breed, that is, it is capable of reproducing an offspring of reasonable facsimile when bred to another specimen of the same breed. That is not true of hybrids, which do not breed true to type. A heritage breed turkey must be capable of reproducing naturally and without artificial insemination. The breed must have originated in this country. Turkeys as a species originated in Mexico and were taken back to Europe with explorers, and therefore there are some European breeds. There is nothing wrong with any of them; they just donít fit the definition of heritage.
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to commerce or supermarkets, at least in principle. The difficulty is that the decisions made by the commercial industry since World War II have been disastrous for the diversity of breeds in this country, the humane treatment of food animals, the independent farmer, the health of the birds and what our food tastes like. In the richest country on earth, awash in food, Americans are eating substandard poultry. We were as a nation once so eager to take advantage of the cheap food huge producers were able to give us, that we eventually just settled for whatever they chose to give us. There was once a turkey industry that offered a wonderful bird called the Standard Bronze, along with a number of other breeds. It looked like the pictures of turkeys in the books you read as a small child. It was a fine, good-tasting bird. It was replaced by the commercial industry with a turkey that would grow faster, cheaper, and had a broader breast, because that seemed to be what people wanted. They developed the Broad-Breasted Bronze. It looks like a turkey, but it canít make little turkeys because its body is so distorted that its reproduction requires artificial insemination. That was replaced in turn by the Giant White, since the pigmentation left in the skin after the feathers are plucked is less noticeable when those feathers, and hence that pigmentation is white. It canít reproduce either. Both breeds do grow faster and bigger, but no one has ever claimed t hat they tasted as good as the older varieties. They donít. When you breed for one characteristic, it is axiomatic that something else is given a lesser priority.