(I am rereleasing this post 5 years after I wrote it with some minor revisions. Happy Thanksgiving!)
We certainly are getting a lot of attention these days. We are Bourbon Reds, part of a group of turkeys called "Heritage" breeds. We can still mate naturally, although all of us will be on your dinner table before we get the chance. We can walk normally, fly sometimes, and run around in a flock like a group of teenage girls at a dance. We are getting a lot of attention because many people consider the older breeds to be superior in a lot of ways- eating qualities, genetic diversity, ability to forage and thrive without a high-grain diet, etc. There are even a few persevering farmers out there making a living off of heritage turkeys. My husband and I were not part of that group.
We (not the turkeys, the farmers) added turkeys to our farm mix in 2005 and 2006. The first year we raised a flock of broad-breasted white turkeys, the standard commercial variety. We raised them in bottomless hoop houses that protected them from the elements and predators, while still giving them access to forage for bugs and eat grass. We would move them 1-2 times a day so they always had access to fresh forage and never spent too much time standing on their manure. The birds grew briskly and sold out quickly. Most of the birds dressed out between 15-20lbs. A few foodies and Slow Foodies suggested we try heritage birds. In 2006 we raised a flock of 80 Bourbon Reds. We started them earlier than the broad-breasted turkeys because we knew they needed an additional 3-4 months of growing time to get to decent size. Instead of raising them in the bottomless pens, we allowed them to day-range and then would close them in at night because turkeys really need more space than chickens. Several of them succumbed to predation because they flew over our electric fence (the broad-breasted birds even when outside of their pens could never fly that high). The turkeys that survived grew slowly but surely, still consuming nearly as much organic feed as their large, hybridized brothers and sisters. And when it came time for these hens and toms to meet their maker, they dressed out on the puny end of the scale, between 8-12lbs. Our customers who had eagerly signed up to reserve a heritage bird were not only disappointed about the size, but they also complained about the higher price tag and the noticeable lack of breast meat. So the heritage birds cost 2.5 times the price as chicks, took twice as long to grow out, ate nearly twice the food, and dressed out at half the size. We had to charge $8/lb. and we still made no profits on these birds. What was curiously frustrating was that these self-described foodies still wanted the size and body shape of a hybrid bird, along with a small price tag. Even somebody from a local Slow Food chapter still insisted that we should be able to raise heritage turkeys for $4/lb. Unbelievable words from somebody who had never farmed in his life. A farmer could probably meet this price point if they- a) raised the birds more densely in a barn and b) fed them conventional feed. We were not going to do either of those things.
Many farmers are frustrated by the lack of breeding for commercial production, with heritage turkey breeders perhaps focusing on backyard or hobbyist producers. Breeding for the commercial turkey producer requires better selection of traits such as faster growth, larger body size, better feed efficiency, more breast meat, and uniformity of growth. It goes without saying, but to resurrect these heritage breeds it has to be profitable for the farmer. That means better genetics, more quality breeders, wide-spread information on the most effective production systems, and stronger consumer awareness of the time and money it takes to produce these birds. Also for those of you who champion heritage turkeys, help convince consumers that dark meat is better than white meat, that smaller birds are o.k., and that paying a lot for an animal once a year is reasonable and won't break the bank. After all, Thanksgiving is a special holiday you spend with friends and family once a year- do you really want to feed them a $ .49/lb Butterball? How about splitting the cost of the heritage turkey between a group of you, so you each chip in $10 or $20 dollars? Not so painful afterall. Oh ya, one last bit of advice- don't wait until the week of Thanksgiving to contact a farmer about their heritage birds. We usually take reservations months in advance and try not to overproduce more than we know we can sell. We are not meat factories...