Why the Biggest Thanksgiving Lie May Be the Turkey on Your Table
Continued from previous page
Nicolette and her husband Bill (formerly of Niman Ranch) began raising turkeys on their farm, BN Ranch, a few years ago, when they recognized the high interest among consumers but low supply of heritage birds. They knew that Reese has some of the best turkey genetics in the country, so when the opportunity to buy some of his poults (baby turkeys) came up, they went to Kansas and drove 36 straight hours back to Northern California with a car full of turkeys. They keep the turkeys they bought from Reese as a breeding flock, raising and selling the poults hatched each year at Thanksgiving.
Over and over, turkey farmers who raise heritage breeds told me their turkeys were not stupid. The myth that turkeys can drown in the rain is just that -- a myth. Niman said that from the first day her turkeys stepped outside, they had their natural instincts intact. When a bird of prey flew overhead, the turkeys flocked together and stood close to the guard dog. Many farmers bring their turkeys indoors in the evenings, but otherwise the turkeys would roost in the trees, where they are safe from most predators. Heritage turkeys, unlike commercial turkeys, are able to fly. (One farmer saw that as a disadvantage to heritage breeds, because by flying out of their fenced enclosure, her turkeys made themselves more vulnerable to predators.)
In an experiment for the University of Arkansas, Reese raised a flock of 40 Broad-Breasted Whites in exactly the same way he raises his own birds. He got the commercial poults in August, and found that the birds could not tolerate the hot Kansas weather as well as his own birds (who can survive in temperatures ranging from 20 below to 110 degrees). In the heat, the commercial birds had breathing problems. Even in more temperate weather, the birds were in poor health. They could not walk well, let along run, and they could not fly up to the roof of the coop like the heritage birds could.
"They wanted to be turkeys and do the things that turkeys do, but they couldn't. They physically couldn't," says Reese. Reese says that when he brings his own birds to the processing plant, the staff there (who are used to commercial turkeys) are surprised that his turkeys do not have bone fractures, cellulites, and open sores like their commercial counterparts do when they reach slaughter weight.
But, one still may ask, if a heritage breed turkey takes twice as long to grow as a commercial turkey, why do they cost so much more than twice as much? When I told Reese that a 16-pound Butterball turkey was going for $8 at my local supermarket, he replied that industry views Thanksgiving as a giveaway. They get much more money selling deli meats than they do selling whole turkeys. Imagine what Subway charges per pound of turkey when you consider the few ounces of cold cuts served on each sandwich. It's also possible that the supermarket is selling the turkeys for a loss in order to lure shoppers into their stores to do the rest of their Thanksgiving shopping.
For a farmer like Reese, most of the money he charges for his turkeys is spent long before Thanksgiving on hatching, feed, processing, and other costs associated with raising his turkeys. Despite the high price tag, he does not make very much profit per bird. He feels that the two ways a farmer can make ends meet while raising heritage breed turkeys is to stay small (around 50 turkeys) and do everything from hatching to slaughter oneself, or to raise more than 5,000 turkeys, at which point processing costs per bird decrease and supplies can be purchased for wholesale prices. This rang true for another farmer, who stopped raising turkeys altogether because after buying the poults from the hatchery, buying the feed, and paying for the slaughter, she was not able to make heritage turkeys profitable even when charging $8 per pound.