Heritage turkeys are an old-fashioned breed, but their popularity has shown a recent resurgence. Heritage turkeys are hard-to-find breeds such as Narragansett, Standard Bronze, Blue Slate and Bourbon Reds. They are similar to what the Pilgrims themselves enjoyed during holiday times.
These breeds have smaller breasts, darker leg meat and a truer, gamier "turkey" flavor than the factory-farm raised turkeys. Heritage birds are also raised for longer periods than the conventional birds. These breeds have a slaughter age of 26 to 28 weeks, while the conventional bird is ready for slaughter in 14-18 weeks. Heritage birds are also raised in smaller flocks and are generally given access to fresh air, sunshine, and pasture, making them more humanely raised than their factory-farm raised counterpart. This extra grow time and freedom allows for sturdier and more flavorful meat; two things very important to the outcome of your holiday meal.
Conventional turkeys, or factory farmed turkeys, are a breed known to farmers as the Broad Breasted White Turkey. This breed was selectively bred by USDA scientists over the past five decades with the primary focus being on maximum breast meat growth and minimum grow times.
While this result answers to the average American's demand—maximum white meat for rock-bottom costs—the one truly paying the price are the genetically modified birds raised under these difficult conditions. The cost to the birds includes cramped, unsanitary growing spaces with little to no fresh air or daylight, and jam-packed with disproportioned birds that are too meaty in the chest area to fly or reproduce.
If the differences between the way heritage birds are raised relative to conventional birds isn't enough to help you decide which turkey you prefer, the thought of all the additives and preservatives added to conventional turkeys just might.
Many store-bought conventional turkeys are generally injected with salt, water and other preservatives during processing to assist with the extended shelf life and to make sure that they make it thousands of miles from the factory to your home (which could take days, if not longer) before going bad. Since heritage turkeys are not mass produced, the heritage breed turkeys are not injected with preservatives, which allow you to enjoy one hundred percent of the turkey’s true flavor.
While conventional turkeys are found in abundance in every supermarket in the United States, heritage breed turkeys can be a little more work to find, but the effort is worth it. Heritage turkeys can generally be found at local specialty farms, organic markets and Amish or Mennonite farms if you are lucky enough to have some in your area at a local farm. The internet is an invaluable resource to finding your holiday bird. Websites such as heritageturkeyfoundation.org and agrilicious.org provide helpful information for families interested in farms currently raising heritage turkeys. Many turkey farms offer shipping throughout the United States.
There is a price difference between the conventional and heritage turkey, but the reasons for the extra costs are justified, particularly once you spend a little time with the farmers to learn how exactly they raised a happy, healthy heritage turkey.
Taste is not the only factor to consider for the optimal experience. If you, like many others, are trying to be more mindful of the moral and environmental impact of your food choices, then Thanksgiving dinner is the perfect start. If you are willing to pay more for a higher quality bird, the heritage breed provides you with the opportunity to support a local farm and enjoy your meal knowing the turkey got to enjoy its entire life like a true turkey should—without confinement and with all the fresh air it can breathe. Take the plunge for the holiday meal this year! You will never look at a conventional supermarket turkey the same way again.
Still Can’t Decide What To Buy? Consult the Turkey Buying Guide
Laura Holt, for Agrilicious!