I’ve had a tradition of hosting family and friends on my farm for Thanksgiving since 1979. In the early days, we held the dinner in an old log cabin on my farm, but more and more people showed up every year — one year there were 63 of us! Now I have to cap it at 30, which is how many people can fit in an addition I built on my house specifically for the purpose. It’s sort of a potluck, but I always cook the turkeys, three of them, and make stuffing.
In 2008, I was looking for something I could raise on a small scale to bring in a little extra income for the farm, and found there was a niche market for heritage turkeys. I thought at the very least I would be able to share a homegrown bird with my friends and family during the holidays. Now I raise about 100 turkeys each year, all in a natural setting where they get to live like a turkey should.
At Park Hill Poultry, I raise heritage turkeys because they are hardy and disease-resistant, and because I think it’s important to preserve the genetic diversity of our traditional American foods. I like to say that to save a breed, you have to eat a breed.
The turkeys you find at a supermarket — Broad-Breasted Whites — have been bred to have such large breasts that they can’t fly or mate naturally; they have to be artificially inseminated. The birds grow so fat that they can barely walk. Heritage breeds are more wild and need space to roam. Mine have a little hut where they roost at night, but during the day they are free to forage for insects and seeds in a pasture.
Mostly I raise Narragansetts, which partly originated from wild New England turkeys in the 1600s, not long after the Pilgrims arrived. They became one of the most popular breeds in the Northeast, but by 1997 there were only six Narragansett; there are now thousands.
I have a flock of about a dozen hens and toms that I keep for producing poults [baby turkeys]. In February, I turn on lights in the hut where I keep the breeding flock for about 14 hours each day, which stimulates the birds to start thinking about breeding. In March, the hens start laying eggs, which I collect from beneath them and place in an incubator, where I keep them at 100 degrees. By early May, they are hatching. The poults are really cute, but goofy. They develop a strange new body part on their head each week: the caruncles, wattles, snood.
My goal is to get all the birds up to slaughter weight by Thanksgiving. I feed them exclusively organic grains, in addition to what they forage in the pasture. In the fall, I collect acorns in the forest for them, which is what wild turkeys fatten up on before winter. Of course, wild turkeys would have their mother to teach them how to crack open the acorns. I know I can’t possibly compare to a turkey mom, but I always crack open a few for them so they get the idea.
I think my customers also appreciate that I raise the turkeys in a humane, sustainable way. But the main reason my customers buy them is because they are so tasty. It’s like comparing a greenhouse tomato to an heirloom tomato. When I eat meat from a Broad-Breasted White, I think, oh, that’s why people put all sorts of flavorings and brinings on their turkey.
People are so proud of their heritage turkeys when they cook them, they often send me pictures. I don’t make much money at this, but do it because I love it. I think we all have agrarian roots still in us somewhere.
It’s so profound to be able to raise some of my own food, but especially for Thanksgiving when I’m already filled with gratitude for the bounty I have in my life. When your food comes all packaged up from the supermarket, it’s easy to gloss over that connection.
- As told to Brian Barth
Find your fowl
Want to try heritage turkey for Thanksgiving? Check out specialty grocers, farmers markets or online mail-order businesses. One good resource is localharvest.org.