AT RISK – The Turkeys of the South Wind

Recently, I had the surreal experience of returning to Kansas for my 20-year high school reunion. Besides the fact that some people definitely age better than others, the trip was memorable because I was able to take an extra day and drive out to Lindsborg and visit Frank Reese at his Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch.

Frank grew up on farms and has been a poultry farmer almost as far back as he can remember. Being the youngest in the family, the poultry duties fell on him. The older siblings got all of the cool animals like the cows, bulls, horses and pigs, but the poultry was saved for him. Fortunately for Frank, and for us, he fell in love with them and has never looked back. Frank is very passionate about his work and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things turkey. He learned from his father who learned from his grandmother. He also had the great fortune of being taught by some of this country’s most important turkey masters, breeders and judges: Norman Kardosh, Dr Bill Crawley and Hy Patton.

If you have never had the pleasure of driving through eastern and central Kansas take it from me, it is an absolutely gorgeous trip. Kansas, is taken from a Sioux Indian word that, roughly translated, means ‘the people of the south wind’. This far out in the middle of the state, not much has changed since the days when the Indians were the only inhabitants of the land. On the day we made our journey to visit Frank and the turkeys (sounds like a good name for a band!), the weather was breathtaking. It is important to point out this part of Kansas is flat. In fact, it is a series of rolling hills and green pastures and it feels like you can literally see forever. I am not sure how far you can actually see, though a friend of mine in the Navy once told me you can only see 12 miles at sea since that’s when the natural curvature of the earth takes over. But we weren’t at sea. We were driving up and down rolling hills for about an hour and a half. We watched as big black clouds rolled over the plains, seemingly 20–30 miles away. We could see the rain coming down from the clouds in what looked like strands of black cotton candy being teased from the dark clouds above.

Once we made it to Lindsborg, we wound our way through town in which the street corners were guarded by 4-foot tall fiberglass painted statues of Dala horses. We finally pulled into the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch and were met immediately by the gobbles of about 30 little turkeys!

The first thing that you notice about Frank’s turkeys is that they aren’t white and they aren’t short and fat; rather, they are tall and very beautiful. I never thought that I would be describing a turkey as beautiful, but these birds were absolutely gorgeous. The American Standard Bronze, or Bronze, is one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. It is easy to see how Frank has made this his life’s pursuit. The colors are so rich and deep and each type of feather is colored so differently that they almost look unreal. The bronze-colored feathers on the Bronze turkeys have the coppery, shimmery, and almost iridescent look that you get from real bronze.

The American Bronze is the main focus of Frank’s turkey passion right now. The Bronze was admitted to the American Poultry Association in 1874 and is the biggest, and in my humble opinion the most beautiful American turkey. It also comes from this country’s smallest state. Early Rhode Island settlers interbred Eastern Wild Turkeys with domesticated European Turkeys in the 1700’s. The Bronze is larger and more vigorous than the domesticated turkeys and tamer than the wild. It was the most popular variety in this country up until 1960, when the Large White Turkey was introduced. The current population status of the Bronze Turkey is critical; it is estimated that there are fewer than 500 breeding birds left and that there are about five breeding flocks, of which Frank Reese’s is by far the largest.

The Bronze is a very intelligent bird and they all mate naturally, none, at least on Frank’s farm, are artificially inseminated. The standard weight of a Bronze Turkey at market is about 20 pounds for a hen and up to 36 for an old tom! They are very good foragers and, much to my surprise, actually can fly. At night, they are led into the barn where they roost on wooden planks about a foot off the ground. In the morning, Frank opens up the barn and they all scurry out, some flying and roosting in 20–30 foot tall trees a hundred yards away! Frank then spends a large part of his morning gathering up the ones that have flown too far away and reuniting them with the rest of the flock. Then for the rest of the day they are allowed to roam all over the pasture and eat and gobble and run and fly and talk about whatever it is that turkeys talk about while basking in the sun.

Frank also has several other turkey breeds that he is helping to save, like the Bourbon Red which is an elegant bird with chestnut-colored plumage and white wings and tail. The Bourbon Red originated in Bourbon County Kentucky and was admitted to the A.P.A. in 1909. Marion Burros featured it in a great New York Times article in November 2001. The status of the Bourbon Red is rare with an estimated 664 breeding hens in the US.

The Narragansett is a beautiful silver bird that is edged in black and has a golden tail. It originated in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, where a blend of Norfolk Black from England and wild turkeys from Rhode Island were combined by early settlers to create what is probably the oldest turkey variety developed in the U.S. Today, there are fewer than 100 Narragansett Turkeys alive.

Frank also breeds the Black Turkey, which is a truly international breed with a globe-trotting history. The Black Turkeys are descendants of Mexican turkeys that were taken to Spain, and then to England, to eventually be brought to America by the colonists. They are very easy to pick out amongst all of Frank’s turkeys, as they are literally all black. The Black Turkeys were admitted to the A.P.A. in 1874.

Along with the breeds described above, Frank is also committed to helping revitalize the Jersey Buff Turkey. He plans on starting to work with them this fall in the hope that by next year he will have some to sell. The Jersey Buff is a reddish-buff color (hence the name) with white tail feathers and white wings with buff shading. They have hazel eyes and a bluish sort of color on the shanks and toes.

As if the menagerie of turkeys wasn’t enough, Frank also raises a great diversity of waterfowl and chickens. He has some of the most unusual chickens and geese I have ever seen. As far as ducks are concerned, he has Cayuga, Aylesbury, Rouen, and White Call ducks. In the chicken department, he has absolutely stunning breeds consisting of Buff Minorca, Black Minorca, Dark Cornish, Black Jersey Giants, Barred Plymouth Rocks, White Plymouth Rocks and Dark Brahma chickens.

One of the highlights of the trip was to see his geese. The geese that Frank has are very special. He has several different breeds including African, Embden, Buff, White Chinese and Gray Toulouse. Frank told me a very funny story about how he went out and bought two of the Gray Toulouse geese, essentially the great, great grandparents of the geese I saw, for $50. When his mother found out what he had done she was so mad at him for squandering $50 on two stupid geese that she broke down and cried!

The Gray Toulouse geese are big, big geese. Gray in color and almost fluffy in appearance, they look like they swallowed a softball and it got stuck in their throats. These geese were originally bred in France, then taken to England, where they were brought to a whole new level. Developed specifically for their livers and the flavor of their meat, these would have been the reason the Christmas Goose was so popular in England. Frank and I briefly discussed trying to help resurrect the goose as a viable option for Christmas meals, because, if you have ever bought one at the grocery store, they are horrible! We agreed that this would be an exciting and difficult challenge, but that first we must help the turkeys!

Hopefully, you get the idea that Frank is into birds. This is a man who really loves his work, and the diversity of the animals on his ranch is intense. I could go on and on about them. In fact, one of my two sons that made the trip with me said, “This farm is really cool, dad; these chickens are awesome. It’s kinda like being at Jurassic Park”. And it was. So many brilliant colors, unusual body shapes and a strange cacophony of clucks, quacks and gobbles with an occasional, but more familiar, bark or meow.

The Slow Food focus on the Heritage Turkeys is very exciting. I can’t imagine being involved with anything more exciting right now than helping someone like Frank help the rest of us be able to enjoy something so special. After my trip to the Good Shepherd Ranch, I am more committed than ever to see how we can support him through our local Slow Food convivium, and even more specifically, here at my deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The turkeys are beautiful and in danger of dying off and I am very proud to be a part of a movement that can help save them. So help us help the turkeys—then we’ll get to the geese!

Todd Wickstrom is a managing partner of Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leader of the local Slow Food Convivium.

Photo: a Narragansett turkey (© Vernon McGee)

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