Being a heritage turkey farmer, you would have thought Frank Reese from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch would be up to his own neck in turkey feathers the day before Thanksgiving, but instead, Reese was calmly walking amongst what was left of his flock. “There were four thousand birds here last week, now there are just a thousand.”
Heritage turkey is in demand this year and many heritage turkey growers sold out way before Thanksgiving. That’s a good sign.
“We sold out a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving,” said Todd Wickstrom, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA. "In our first year, we sold 750 heritage turkeys and this year we sold out at 6,000. We could sell more." Wickstrom says that they have been working with Frank and his network since their inception but there continues to be a dearth of heritage poultry growers. "There are so few USDA facilities that will accommodate the small farmer, it becomes an expensive proposition and not many farmers want to take that risk.”
Reese is almost as rare as the heritage birds he is working to save. He is known as the Godfather of American Poultry, and in fact, according to Farm Forward, is the only farmer recognized by the USDA as a heritage poultry producer.
Reese defines heritage turkey by the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection which lists 8 varieties of turkeys: Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm [theAmerican Livestock Breeds Conservancy also lists other varieties.]
A main difference between these birds and the ones you normally find in your grocery store is that these birds mate naturally -- in fact that is a pre-requisite to being a Heritage bird. The Broad breasted white, the variety that almost all industrial turkey producers use, has to be artificially inseminated. These heritage birds also fly – Reese never clips their tails – and flying is something that his birds do regularly, landing on barn roofs, telephone polls, and trees.
“I just let them be turkeys,” says Reese.
Frank runs what most folks would consider an unusual turkey farm. Turkeys were strolling up the driveway, wandering in the yard, standing on fence poles and hanging out behind the barn, strutting their stuff and giving shrill waves of warning sounds when intruders approached.
Wickstrom says when he took his children to visit Reese, it was like landing in some kind of exotic bird sanctuary -- birds were everywhere. “My kids loved it,” says Todd. So did Todd. In fact, says Todd, who was a leader of a local Slow Food Convivium at the time, it was the trip that helped him decide to join Patrick Martins in defense of these birds that eventually led to the creation of Heritage Foods USA. “I never thought that I would be describing a turkey as beautiful, but these birds were absolutely gorgeous. The American Standard Bronze, or Bronze, is one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.”
Reese puts out a warning to any would-be heritage turkey owner: “These are crazy birds,” says Reese. “They like to get into mischief. They roost on the hatch, they fly around, they’re loud, they get into everything, they eat a ton of food. Make sure you want to live with these birds first before you get into business with them!” Reese recommends that new growers start small, not owning more than 50 or 60 poults.
Between Reese and his farming partners, they have over 10-14,000 birds throughout the year. “Enough to get a processor’s attention,” says Reese assuredly. “In this business, you have to go big or get real small.”
He walked back to attend to his turkeys but turned around for one last question. What are you having for Thanksgiving this year? “A bronze!” he shouted and then smiled.