Heritage Turkeys

We raise two kinds of turkeys: Broad Breasted Bronze (BBB), which are similar in body type to what you buy at the grocery store, and Bourbon Red, which are a smaller, heritage breed of turkey.

The BBBs are for people who are accustomed to a larger turkey, that can feed a large gathering. I just finished butchering almost all of them, and they were enormous: the two toms dressed at 35 pounds, and the hens were all 24-25 pounds. We really need to start butchering them earlier in the year, or starting the poults later in the year, because that’s too big of a turkey for most people. We have one customer who likes the 35# toms; they have 50+ people over for Thanksgiving, and will use all that meat. She bought one of them; the other tom I cut up into pieces for us to freeze and eat next year. On a turkey that large, a leg quarter is an entire meal for our family.

Our BBBs are the size of a supermarket turkey, but the flavor and meat quality is very different. Our birds are raised on pasture, and have had a good diet of green stuff. Plus, they live to be old enough so the muscle matures and are used more than factory-farmed birds (which are raised in confinement and slaughtered at 16 weeks). Something we’ve observed, and others have commented to us: after feasting on one of our turkeys for Thanksgiving, we don’t feel sick the next day.

The heritage turkeys are the ones people are really interested in, as they’re a much different eating experience. The breasts are smaller, and better proportioned to the size of the bird. They can fly, and run fast, and as a result end up using more of their muscles in more ways that the enormous lumbering BBBs do — and that makes for different meat. The hens only dress at 8-10#, and the toms are more like 15# — not a bad size, but it won’t feed a large crowd. We charge $3.50/lb for them, and could probably charge more (other farmers do), and people drive from as far away as Chicago to get them. (We charge $2.50/lb for the BBBs.)

The biggest problem with Bourbon Reds and other heritage turkeys is the cost of poults; they can run as much as $7 or $8 each, compared to about $4 for BBB poults. And we always lose several of them in the brooder, and usually one or two die after reaching maturity, so the actual cost to acquire each bird is significantly higher. It’s not really worth it from a financial standpoint; we’re doing this for the pleasure of being able to provide our family and others with a really excellent Thanksgiving experience. Perhaps when we get to Michigan, we’ll be able to figure out how to do this more profitably.

The New York Times has an excellent article today, spotlighting a breeder who is taking the lead in preserving these wonderful birds.

Virtually all of turkeys raised in the United States come from one basic line, a broad-breasted White that George Nicholas developed in California in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he had perfected a breed that produced meat so efficiently that it became the industry standard.

The problem is, the birds can’t fly or reproduce without the help of artificial insemination, and their bland meat has produced a nation of diners for whom dry, overcooked Thanksgiving turkey is an annual disappointment.

“It’s as if everyone in America was eating only one kind of apple,” Mr. Reese said. “It’s like saying we will only use Red Delicious apples for everything.”

The dominance of the broad-breasted White concerns those who worry that American agriculture is on the brink of losing its once-diverse strain of plants and animals. For the last 20 years, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has been working to save turkeys like the ones on Mr. Reese’s farm.

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