(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

There is a growing concern over our food supply, and gardeners everywhere are joining in the effort to increase the quality of our foods. Gardeners are becoming increasingly diversified, and getting into more sustainable practices such as raising heirloom vegetables and saving seeds. One of those practices is seen in the increasing number of backyard chicken pens, giving gardeners not only healthy eggs and meat, but rich fertilizer for our gardens. The interest in heritage turkeys is just one step away from backyard chickens.

What are heritage turkeys, and why would we want one?

For one thing, they are “green”, that is, they are sustainable. They are capable of walking, running, even flying, and capable of breeding by themselves. They can lay fertile eggs, and set a clutch of eggs to hatch. Chefs say that they have much better taste than other turkeys. That is because they are slower to develop, which gives them stronger bones and organs before developing muscle, just as our turkeys did 50+ years ago. Heritage turkeys have a long productive life span measured in years and are very suitable for free-range, giving them a pasture diet and thus meat with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.[1] Ten different turkey breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate (or Slate Blue), Standard Bronze, White Holland, and White Midget.[2] One thing I have noticed about heritage turkeys besides a handsome sleekness, is longer legs.

Image Image
Heritage turkey poult
Free-range heritage turkeys

The turkey on your holiday table is most likely a Broad Breasted White turkey, selected and bred over the last several decades to be quick and cheap to produce, and to have a meaty breast. The Broad Breasted White (BBW) turkey descends from several domesticated turkeys, which in turn descend from the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. The BBW turkey was originally preferred among similar domesticated turkey breeds because the white pin feathers don’t show when it was market-ready. (I remember as a young child having to help remove a few remaining dark pin feathers left from turkey processing.) Now the BBW has been bred to grow quickly (14 to 18 weeks to market), and to have a larger breast. The breast meat in these birds accounts for 70% of their weight.[3] “The breeding stock for these birds are owned by just three multinational corporations: Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada, British United Turkeys of America in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California.“[4]

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White tom turkey
Bourbon Red tom turkey
Tom turkey "strutting"

As cheap as factory-raised turkeys are, there is a downside. They are bred so breast-heavy that most can barely walk, if at all. “They are so heavy that they are completely incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination, and they reach such extreme weights so quickly their overall development fails to keep pace with their rapidly accruing muscle mass, resulting in severe immune system, cardiac, respiratory and leg problems”.[4] Only a few breeding toms are ever kept past the normal 14 to 18 weeks-to-market lifespan, and all factory turkeys are caged in extremely crowded conditions.

As the BBW turkey became the norm for factory-raised birds, the few remaining breeds of domesticated turkeys began to diminish. Conservation groups started to take notice, and “the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) considered heritage turkeys to the most critically endangered of all domestic animals circa 1997. A census conducted by the Conservancy found less than 1,500 total breeding birds (out of all heritage varieties) were left in the country. With some breeds, such as the Narragansett having less than a dozen individuals left, many considered most heritage turkeys to be beyond hope.”[3] This year, 2008, there were more than 10,000 mature heritage turkeys available for sale at small farms, farmer’s markets, natural food stores and online.

Turkey Trivia:
Turkeys are believed to be dumb birds that will look up to the sky when it rains until they drown. Actually they are no more or less intelligent than comparable animals. [5]

Two to four billion pounds of poultry feathers are produced every year. Most are ground up as filler for animal food.[5]

“Turkey droppings are being used as a fuel source in electric power plants like one in Minnesota that provides 55 megawatts of power using 700,000 tons (that’s 140 million pounds!) of dung per year. There are three such plants in England. The critics say turkey litter, of all farm animals' manure, is the most valuable as a rich, organic fertilizer at a time when demand is growing for all things organic.”[6]

There is a traditional White House/Presidential custom called the Turkey Pardon that dates to Harry S. Truman's presidency. The orgins are obscure; some think it even goes back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son Tad's pet turkey. This year's turkey, "Pumpkin", was presented to President Bush in a Rose Garden Ceremony. "Pumpkin will be the honorary grand marshal of Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day Parade," the president declared.[7] The American public was allowed to vote for the turkeys' names (Pumpkin and Pecan) on the White House web site. 2007's turkeys were named May and Flower, 2006's were Flyer and Fryer; 2005's were Marshmallow and Yam; and 2004's were Biscuit and Gravy.

Truman and the "Turkey Pardon"

My turkey this year is a Bourbon Red hen, my first heritage turkey since I was a child. It was more expensive than a store-bought Butterball but I will eat it with honor, knowing it was raised humanely and on healthy pasture. Heritage turkeys require a different approach to cooking. Because there is less white meat, they can dry out while the longer-cooking requirements for dark meat are met. One solution is to brine the turkey, which I am doing. Another is to add some butter between the skin over the breast and the breast itself. The turkey needs to be covered during cooking with oiled or buttered parchment paper, not foil, except for a brief period near the end to brown the bird. For more information on cooking heritage turkeys: http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp.

I read somewhere (sorry, but didn’t note where) that the average person in the U.S. will eat seventeen pounds of turkey this year, and the average Canadian will eat nine pounds. I assume that includes packaged lunchmeats and not just turkey on the platter. Because of the high sodium content of packaged lunchmeats, I do not buy lunchmeats, but I sure look forward to some leftover turkey for sandwiches.

Meanwhile, I think I will have the only “green” turkey in the neighborhood, on my own Thanksgiving table!

Turkey Videos

Birth of a baby turkey Part1

1 Day old Turkey Poults

Frank Reese - What are Heritage Turkeys?

Food Love: Heritage Turkey Farm


2 1/2 gallons cold water
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 bay leaves, torn into pieces
1 bunch fresh thyme, or 4 tablespoons dried
1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
5 whole allspice berries, crushed
4 juniper berries, smashed

Place the water in a large nonreactive pot that can easily hold the liquid and the turkey. Add all the ingredients and stir for a minute or two until the sugar and salt dissolve.

Put the turkey into the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. If the turkey floats to the top, weight it down with a plate and cans to keep it completely submerged in the brine.

Note: You may halve or double the recipe. The important thing is to prepare enough brine to cover the turkey completely. Also note that the brine may make pan drippings too salty for gravy.

To roast: Remove the bird from the brine, rinse and drain well. Pat dry. Follow the Best Way instructions for roasting, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/11/14/FD171690.DTL.


[1] Information about criteria for heritage turkeys comes from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_turkey
[3] Ekarius, Carol (2007). Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, Storey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-58017-667-5.
[4] Burros, Marian. The Hunt for a Truly Grand Turkey, One That Nature Built, The New York Times, November 21, 2001. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9906E3DD1F3BF932A15752C1A9679C8B63&sec=&spon=&&scp=6&sq=%22heritage%20turkey%22&st=cse
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domesticated_turkey
[6] Turkey-Manure Power Plant Raises Stink with Environmentalists. International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/06/06/europe/manure.php?page=1
[7] http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hwM8k1AFoBJ9FYoPWLu5a0BSRn6gD94MS3B80

Photo Credits:

All photos are Public Domain, or Wikipedia Commons, which is a freely licensed media file repository.