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Traditional Thanksgiving dinners (and oftentimes other holiday dinners) have, at their heart, a big, fat turkey. And we love them, right? In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his admiration for everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving centerpiece this way, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison [with the Bald Eagle] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Clearly, the turkey is much more than just tasty in old Ben’s eyes—it is also admirable, a bird of good character. The idea of a turkey’s character may not matter so much on the tongue, but if you’re looking to show your gratitude instead of just pleasing your taste buds, maybe this year you should think about that bird of old and consider buying what is now called a “heritage turkey” for the big meal.

A heritage turkey is a throwback to a bygone age—some might say a tastier, kinder and healthier age. Heritage turkeys are the ancestors of today’s Broad-Breasted White industrial turkeys, which will be perched, juicy and golden, on most of your dining room tables in a few days. Heritage turkeys were mostly developed in the US and Europe and were identified by the American Poultry Association’s turkey  Standard of Perfection of 1874. The term ‘heritage turkeys’ comprises a few different breeds, namely Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later, the standard came to include the Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White. In the 1960’s, large corporations overtook the turkey market, and relied on the modern Broad-Breasted White because of its particularly large breast and shorter growing time. Your typical supermarket variety of turkey grows to about 32 pounds in 18 weeks, whereas as a heritage turkey takes about twice as long to reach the same weight. You can hear the price multiplying, can’t you?

So, I’ll break it to you: Heritage turkeys are pretty expensive. Nationally, the average turkey in your supermarket costs about $1.39/pound but a heritage turkey can cost as much as $7.00 and up per pound. Why the huge discrepancy? Earlier, I mentioned that the growing time for a heritage turkey is roughly twice as long as the more common Broad-Breasted White turkey, and that longer growing period incurs a lot more costs. Most farmers who raise heritage turkeys do so in a very different environment than an industrial turkey farm. Heritage farms generally have more space for the turkeys—large barns to roost in at night, and acres and acres for them to roam, forage and explore while taking in some nice, fresh air. This is a huge difference from your typical commercial farm where birds are crowded into metal confinements, have little to no human interaction due to mechanized feeding and watering systems, and–I’ll just give it to you straight–cheap feed that often is chock-full of pharmaceuticals and slaughterhouse waste.

Clearly, you just can’t raise as many of heritage turkeys on a small farm with the conditions we’ve described above (spacious barns and room to roam). The yield is far higher on a commercial farm, and that plays a large part in the price of a heritage turkey. If a commercial turkey farm loses some turkeys due to disease, injury, etc, they’ve got plenty of other turkeys to make up for it—a new crop waiting to replace the old by the time a heritage turkey is only half grown. A small heritage turkey farmer is depending more on every bird to recoup their expenses, so if they lose birds, it’s more of a problem. Ka-ching.

So yes, heritage turkeys are more expensive, but the way they are raised makes them generally healthier. Heritage birds are more closely related to their wild ancestors, so they tend to be healthier, hardier and can mate naturally (and run and fly!). Why is this exciting, you might ask? Did you know that Broad-Breasted Whites are too heavy to fly because they are weighted down by their unusually large breasts? They’ve been specifically bred to produce more white meat and to grow fast; so much so that they are now incapable of flight, have difficulty walking and can’t mate naturally.

There’s also the environmental factor to consider in purchasing your turkey this year. Airborne ammonia emissions produced by the birds can be harmful to both turkeys and those who work with them; and often, large industrial farms end up polluting our air, soil and water through agricultural waste because of environmental laws that leave too much leeway for large companies to dispose of waste irresponsibly (or when said environmental laws are not strictly enforced). Heritage turkey farmers contend that large, commercial companies tend to more often produce meat with antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to their wide-spread use of antibiotics in their turkeys (the need for drugs is considerably more in a bird raised in close quarters), though the USDA assures consumers that there is no evidence that either type of turkey is safer than the other from potential contaminants like salmonella and e. coli. The USDA also requires a mandatory pre-slaughter antibiotic withdrawal period and has set a strict legal limit for antibiotic residues. They contend that that level is well below what could potentially be harmful to humans. Heritage turkeys, on the other hand, are raised antibiotic free.

You might also consider the quality of life of the birds being raised, and the fact that most varieties of heritage turkeys have been on the verge of extinction, so supporting farmers who raise them supports the continued bio-diversity of our planet.

So, is it worth it? Chefs and turkey connoisseurs tend to agree that heritage birds taste better, are less salty and have a better texture when compared to your typical store-bought bird. Maybe since its Thanksgiving and we’re all thinking about how much we have and what we might be able to do for others, you might consider trying a heritage turkey this year. You’ll be helping the environment, eating healthier, and giving at least one bird the turkey equivalent of a rock star life.

If you want to learn more about heritage turkeys, check out The Heritage Turkey Foundation. To find a heritage turkey for your Thanksgiving or Christmas table, check out Heritage Foods USA, Dartagnan, Rainbow Ranch Farms, Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, Mary’s Turkey, or check out Local Harvest for farms in your area.
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