As you read this, someone close to you may be cleaning, stuffing, or slicing a turkey. Over 45 million turkeys were purchased for Thanksgiving out of the 265 million raised this year alone. The vast majority of these birds were grown on industrial farms. Perhaps your bird is organic, free range, or locally grown, but odds are you won’t be dining on a heritage turkey this holiday. You may be surprised to learn just how much healthier these birds are, how crucial they are for the future of our food system, and why its hard for this niche to turn a profit.
Heritage turkeys – birds with genetic lines that predate the engineering that defines the current poultry market – are bred and raised in a traditional, humane, and sustainable manner. To meet the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy standard, they must mate naturally, live productively outdoors, and grow slowly in order to develop strong bodies. In contrast, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 99% of American turkeys are Broad Breasted Whites. These turkeys are the product of the 1960’s shift to industrial farming and have been bred to grow the maximum quantity of white meat. Such genetic selection is inhumane, dangerous to human health, and ultimately not commercially viable.
A recent study on chickens led by Bill Muir, a Purdue University animal sciences professor, was the first to analyze the genetic diversity of a complete agricultural commodity. The study concludes that “commercial birds are missing more than half of the genetic diversity native to the species, possibly leaving them vulnerable to new diseases and raising questions about their long-term sustainability.”
Similarly, by the late nineties, only three corporate breeders supplied the entire turkey market worldwide. Canadian poultry geneticist Roy Crawford calls the genetic base for international poultry “extremely narrow” and “vulnerable to genetic disease.”
Frank Reese, a renowned fourth generation turkey farmer, explains that even farmers selling locally grown poultry buy from the same breeders as industrial growers. Mr. Reese runs the Good Sheppard Turkey Ranch in Kansas, where his birds have genetic lines traceable to the late 1800s.
Mr. Reese explains that his biggest obstacle is infrastructure. As his turkeys became the focus of national attention and began to sell across state lines, he needed to work with federally certified plants.
Every aspect of the mass production system is designed around a single product, the Broad Breasted Whites. From transport to processing machinery, the heritage turkey faces costly obstacles. The linear mass production system is highly centralized, most turkeys are grown in just three states, and not adaptable to diversity. Furthermore, industrial infrastructure allows costs to be externalized, leaving taxpayers to cover expenses from subsidies to environmental damage.
The cost differential between a Butterball and a heritage bird is the infrastructure gap. “To reestablish the infrastructure,” Mr. Reese allowed, “it will take major players who care about the animals, family farmers, and the environment.”
Yet, recent fluctuations in the price of grain challenge the industrial model and raise questions about how turkeys will be fed. Unlike heritage birds, the industrial turkey market depends on cheap corn.
At the same time, the success of Proposition 2 in California evidences the power of consumer awareness even in times of economic hardship.
Through the development of the nonprofit Standard-Bred Poultry Institute, Mr. Reese will train farmers interested in preserving the genetic pool of heritage breeds. The institute works closely with Farm Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture. Thanks to Farm Forward, and numerous supporting organizations, Good Sheppard Turkey Ranch is thriving and advancing methods of poultry farming necessary for a healthy food system.
Be thankful for the foresight of family farmers and check back soon for more on Farm Forward. Happy Turkey Day.
Want more Thanksgiving Coverage? An Efficient Thanksgiving Day Turkey