Giving Thanks to Heritage Breeds

Today millions of people will celebrate one of North America’s strongest traditions, and many are choosing lesser-known heritage turkey breeds to grace their table this year. Breeders of heritage turkeys are reporting brisk sales this Thanksgiving as these previously almost-forgotten breeds re-enter American food culture.

These breeds resemble their wild ancestors much more closely than modern breeds and were very popular just 100 years ago when they were raised on around 6,000 small poultry farms across the USA. Gradually the farms declined in number, and with them, the knowledge and interest in growing animals like heritage turkeys.

The breeds had almost disappeared until sustainable agriculture advocates and food enthusiasts worked to bring them back into modern food culture. Activists included Slow Food USA, which in 2004 launched ‘Renewing America’s Food Traditions’ a campaign to save endangered food species by convincing farmers to raise, and people to eat, heritage breeds.

Devotees say the meat from the old fashioned breeds is more flavorful, with firmer, darker meat than modern birds. But above all, it’s their compelling story that is winning over many – representing an idea of an older way of farming and eating. The birds are generally raised on small farms, fed on pasture, roam freely and are sold directly from farmer to customer. “It’s a hot item,” said Bill Niman, an advocate for sustainable agriculture who raised 2,500 birds for Thanksgiving and sold every one.

Even with a surge in interest in the breeds, many producers say they are having trouble making money as many heritage breeds take longer and cost far more to raise than their modern counterparts. They often sell for 10 or 20 times the cost of a typical supermarket turkey. “The prices seem very high at first, if you compare them to a bird at the supermarket,” said Mark Scherzer, who raised around 100 heritage turkeys this year, “You’re feeding them organic grain and it takes them more than twice as long to get to market size.”

Despite the seemingly higher cost, more Americans are still opting for heritage breeds this year, demonstrating a shift in the value placed on good, clean and fair food. Customer Mr. Di Gangi said that over the last year he had been paying more attention to where his food comes from. With a heritage bird, he feels he will have a healthier meal and support a local organic farmer instead of a commercial turkey mill.

Source: The New York Times

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