When holidays draw near, one thing that is at the root of most people’s thoughts is holiday dinner preparations for friends and family. Of course, the centerpiece of many holiday tables includes a roasted turkey surrounded by herbs, vegetables, and an abundance of tempting treats. In fact, it is said that Americans purchase 267 million turkeys each year.
Many cooks reach for the standard supermarket turkey out of convenience or habit, not realizing what they are purchasing, or that there are other more ethical options. Most turkey sold today are selectively bred to produce a particular outcome, such as fast growth and large breasts, as most Americans prefer white meat. Industrial breeds of turkey are more common, but they are a far cry from their ancestors such as heritage breed turkeys, an American tradition for generations.
Alternatives to factory turkey breeds
One of the best and most authentic alternatives to unethically modified turkeys are heritage breeds. Heritage breed turkeys are a variety of breeds that are range-raised and must meet standards set by the American Poultry Association (APA). These ancestral breeds have long been prized for their natural beauty and flavor. Long before standardized turkey breeds, such as the common broad-breasted white, overtook supermarket shelves, heritage breed turkeys such as the Naraganasett, White Holland, Jersey Buff, Slate, and the Bourbon Red provided were enjoyed across the country.
What are heritage breed turkeys?
Since 1874, heritage breed turkeys were identified by the American Poultry Association as a turkey Standard of Perfection. While the heritage breed varieties of turkey have been bred and raised for generations, the market for these birds has shifted significantly in the midst of the rapid growth of commercially raised turkeys in the 20th century.
Heritage turkeys differ from their unethically bred counterparts in several ways, including how they are raised, how they eat and breed, and how long it takes them to reach maturity. Very special conditions are placed on turkey breeds in order for them to truly be considered a heritage breed. Not all organic or free-range turkeys are heritage breed, so customers should consider that true heritage breed turkeys cost significantly more than supermarket brands, and are clearly labeled as heritage breeds.
One of the most striking characteristics of heritage breed turkeys is the way that they are bred. Unlike the most commonly farmed turkeys that are biologically engineered, heritage breed turkeys are the result of both parent and grandparent stock having naturally mated. Many varieties of commercially bred turkeys are the product of artificial insemination. The reason for this is because the birds grow at such a fast rate that their bones and internal organs cannot keep up. They are unable to mate naturally because they can’t coordinate their movements to do so.
The lifespan and growth rate of a turkey can drastically affect the bird’s quality of life, outward appearance, and taste once processed. Most common broad-breasted turkeys reach maturity in as little as 12-18 weeks, which does not allow proper time for the bird to develop, either physically or in terms of taste. Heritage breed turkeys on the other hand grow at a slower, more natural pace. They reach market weight at around 24-30 weeks, and this extra time allows them to develop a richer, more flavorful meat.
What was once considered a niche market comprised of small turkey farms, the demand for heritage breed turkeys has increased significantly in recent years as home cooks become more conscious of the unhealthy living standards of industrially farmed birds. Now the market and demand for heritage breed turkey is quite large. In fact, many companies sell out of heritage breed turkeys well in advance of the holiday season as customers rush to place their orders.
What are the benefits of choosing heritage turkeys?
The lives and health of industrially bred and raised turkeys often are a far cry from what customers perceive them to be. Unlike naturally raised breeds, industrialized breeds are unable to mate naturally, and may have physical disabilities and greater disease susceptibility due to their narrow genetic base, and the fact that their muscles grow so fast, while their organs and bones are unable to properly support that growth.
These defects can lead to the turkeys being fed antibiotics and additives in order to survive long enough to be processed. The result of this treacherous lifestyle is a serious lack of taste and quality in many commercially raised brands. Therefore, one of the benefits of purchasing a heritage breed turkey is that they taste better and are more wholesome.
Another benefit to purchasing a heritage breed turkey is the assurance of not contributing to the unhealthy and unnatural practices that result in the immense suffering that commercially raised turkeys endure between birth and the dining room table.
What are the disadvantages of buying heritage breeds?
Heritage turkeys are more expensive. A regular supermarket turkey will cost only $20-30, heritage breed turkeys can cost as much as $200 or more, depending on the breeder and whether the turkey is sold fresh or frozen, shipped, etc. It takes a lot longer to bring heritage breed turkeys to market weight, and that market weight tends to be less than the abnormally large Broad Breasted White, the most common of the aggressively bred commercial varieties.
Another disadvantage is that heritage breed turkeys are not in as great supply as commercial birds, therefore, it can be more challenging to find a turkey in time for the holidays. There are several reputable companies where consumers can purchase true heritage breed turkeys, however, and it is well worth the effort.
The Heritage Turkey Foundation is dedicated to preserving the grace, beauty, and flavor of these natural turkeys. Additionally, the not-for-profit group has worked diligently in recent years to promote production. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food are working together to promote consumer awareness for heritage brand turkeys, their natural farm lives, and their taste.
Where to purchase heritage turkeys
BN Ranch: Turkeys are raised free-range, free of antibiotics or other drugs, and are the result of five generations of heritage breeding. Prices for fresh heritage turkeys range from $98 to upwards of $200, depending on size.
Heritage Foods USA: Raised on a farm in Kansas by Frank Reese, Heritage Foods offers turkeys raised free-range, free of antibiotics, and allowed to roam and interact with other turkeys. Small turkeys cost as little as $85, while larger turkeys in excess of 20 pounds cost as much as $169.
Mary’s Free Range Turkey: Turkeys are raised free-range, vegetarian, gluten free, and free of hormones or antibiotics. Mary’s is located in California and is a family owned and operated business. Mary’s website offers a functional link for consumers to find local retailers offering Mary’s heritage turkeys. Mary’s turkeys range in price from $79 to upwards of $230, depending on size.
For more information on choosing the best poultry, read our guide to buying chicken and poultry.