What are Heritage Breed Turkeys?

A Heritage Breed Turkey is a naturally mating bird with a slower growth rate (taking 26-30 weeks to mature) that spends most of its longer life outdoors. By contrast, industrial turkeys live in cages, are bred to grow quickly(14 to 18 weeks to mature) and can reproduce only through artificial insemination. In addition to growing slower, a heritage turkey is also more active, which results in less fat. The flavor a heritage bird is worlds away from the dry, tasteless turkeys most people in the US have grown up eating on Thanksgiving.

The turkeys we eat today came from Central America, and were brought to Europe and domesticated there. Pilgrims re-imported these turkeys back to the United States around 1620. Once back in USA they were crossed with North American wild turkeys. The descendants of these turkeys are what has become standard breed heritage turkeys as originally certified by the American Poultry Association in 1873.

Heritage birds have a rich, full flavor and have darker meat. They’re closer to wild birds than white-meat turkeys bred for obesity and early maturity, known as Broad Breasted Whites. Unlike broad-breasted turkeys, Heritage birds live long enough to develop a layer of fat beneath the skin, which imparts a rich flavor to the meat. They also have larger thighs and legs because they still run and fly which produces especially dark, juicy meat. The aroma of the bird when cooking is distinctly different and more appealing than the industrial bird. The flavor of a heritage breed turkey is also not marred by the salt water that is the industry standard to add to the bird. Salt water is a big part of what is purchased if the industrial turkey has been ‘enhanced’ by the manufacturer. For frozen turkeys, 8% to 20% of the bird’s weight could be a sodium-water solution. This means you’re paying for saltwater; a 20 lb “moisture enhanced” turkey equals only 16 lbs of meat (4 lbs is nothing but water). It also means that a 4-oz serving from that same turkey could add as much as 540 mg or 23% of the daily recommended amount of sodium to your diet (2300 mg).

Nowadays there are only around 25,000 Heritage Turkeys produced annually, compared to 270,000,000 industrial (broad-breasted) birds. This has increased from the end of the 20th century when the broad-breasted white had become so popular that heritage breeds were almost extinct. In 1997, The America Livestock Breed Conservancy considered heritage turkeys the most critically endangered of all domestic animals, finding fewer than 1,500 breeding birds in the United States. Along with Slow Food USA, the Heritage Turkey Foundation, and small-scale farmers, The Livestock Conservancy hit the media with advocacy. By 2003 the numbers had grown 200% and by 2006 the Conservancy reported that more than 8,800 breeding birds existed in the United States.

Some common Heritage Breeds are the Jersey Buff, the Narragansett, the Bourbon Red, the Chocolate, the Bronze, the Royal Palm, the Blue Slate and the Midget White. Unlike their industrial counterpart, these turkeys also grow feathers in an array of striking patterns and can range from white, black and white, brown, bronze and black.

The turkeys we are offering in 2022 are the Chocolate, the Royal Palm, and the Midget White. We hope you enjoy them as the centerpiece of a delicious holiday meal! Happy Thanksgiving!

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