Farmers Work to Preserve Ancient Turkey Breeds
November 24, 2008At Ayrshire Farm, hundreds of Midget White and Bourbon Red turkeys move in a feathered, gobbling mass on a wind-swept pasture overlooking Virginia's horse country.
These birds have longer legs and narrower breasts than the beachball-shaped turkey that will end up on many Thanksgiving Day tables. What they lack in heft, however, these heritage birds make up for in flavor, proponents say.
They also make it up in price: a 20-pound certified organic turkey from Ayrshire Farm costs $180.
Heritage turkeys are at the forefront of a movement to preserve threatened breeds - some dating to the nation's founding by Europeans and earlier - to ensure the continuation of ancient genetic strains and, yes, to get them listed on a chic restaurant menu or in a display case of a boutique butcher shop.
"One of the things we say is you have to eat them to save them," said Marjorie Bender of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. "If we can give them their jobs back, then they're not museum artifacts."
The conservancy, based in Pittsboro, N.C., has been promoting the cause of threatened and neglected breeds since 1977. It has compiled a list of more than 150 breeds that reads like a passenger list on Noah's Ark, ranging from donkeys (including the Poitou, which resembles Eeyore, the forlorn donkey in "Winnie-the-Pooh") to sheep and turkeys.
Bender said the conservancy's primary goal is preserving these colorful and unusual breeds from extinction. The idea is to preserve the diversity of farm animals, as well as the history they embody.
When a breed is gone, Bender said, "The culture is being lost, the flavors are being lost, the traditions are being lost."
Some of those traditions date to the Spanish and English settlers who first arrived on our shores. They include the Pineywoods cattle, found primarily in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama; and Colonial Spanish horses, which include the Marsh Tacky. Chincoteague ponies, celebrated in the classic 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague," are a diluted link to the Colonial Spanish.
Ayrshire Farm is among the most spectacular settings for the rescue mission of breed preservationists.
Founded in Virginia's Piedmont region by Cisco Systems co-founder Sandy Lerner, its primary focus is English livestock.
The farm has a menagerie of livestock out of a children's book: Scottish Highland cattle, which resemble a woolly mammoth with their shaggy, butterscotch-colored coats and curved horns; Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs, with ears that flop over their eyes; the Shires, 1-ton horses with feathered legs below their hocks; and many other breeds.
Ayrshire raised 412 turkeys this season, a large number considering the estimated 30,000 heritage birds used for production in the U.S.
"This farm is committed to several things," said Don Schrider, who manages large livestock at Ayrshire. "One commitment is certainly keeping these breeds from extinction."
This Thanksgiving, Americans will buy 46 million standard Broad-Breasted Whites, the big-breasted bird preferred by the majority of Americans, according to the National Turkey Foundation.
The difference between a heritage and factory bird is stark.
The standard commercial bird will be ready for the table in 18 weeks, compared with 26 weeks for the heritage bird; heritage birds forage, while the standard breed will live its short life before a feeding tray; and commercial birds cannot mate without human intervention. A market-ready industry turkey is the equivalent of an 11-year-old child weighing 300 pounds.
The conservancy, Bender said, is not opposed to agriculture on a large scale, and it recognizes that heritage breeds are not going to feed the masses.
Frank Reese comes as close as anyone to that lofty goal. His Good Shepherd Ranch about 1 hour north of Wichita, Kan., shipped out 11,000 birds this holiday season throughout the U.S. His prices were considerably lower than Ayrshire's, excluding shipping costs.
Reese has 160 acres but works with 15 other farmers in producing heritage breeds.
His favorite: the Bronze, the iconic copper-bronze bird historically associated with Thanksgiving.
(Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)