Any third-grader will tell you that the best way to draw a turkey is to trace an outline of your hand, add eyes and a beak at the tip of the thumb, and sketch a pair of legs onto the base of the palm. But what’s surprising about this exercise is that virtually none of the turkeys on American farms look even remotely similar to the birds that are represented, with varying degrees of artistry, by millions of little elementary school hands every November. In fact, a stricter focus on accurate turkey representation in our classrooms would go some way to reducing crayon costs at schools nationwide, as the vast majority of the 265 million turkeys raised for human consumption each year are uniformly squat, round, and pale.
Turkey farmer Frank Reese has dedicated his entire life to changing that. If you spend some time with Mr. Reese, who runs Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch on a sprawling tract of land in Lindsborg, Kansas, he will be more than happy to give you a thorough rundown of all the things that he doesn’t like about the hybrid “broad-breasted White,” which, since the 1960s, has been the dominant breed favored by mass-producers of turkeys because of the speed and efficiency with which it produces meat: A broad-breasted White reaches slaughter weight in half the time it takes one of Good Shepherd’s heritage turkeys. Unfortunately, as Reese is quick to point out, these birds can’t fly—nor can they reproduce naturally or grow at a normal, healthy rate. And (partially as a result of these flaws) the meat that they produce is mealy and bland.
The secret to Reese’s own operation, which served as the original model for the Animal Welfare Institute’s long list of standards for humane animal husbandry, is the lifetime of expertise which allows him to pick specimens that will preserve healthy genetic variation in his breeding birds—a diversity that has been in serious danger of disappearing since the emergence of the broad-breasted White some 50 years ago. Reese’s turkeys mate naturally (most farmed turkeys nowadays must be artificially inseminated); they live long, productive lives; and they grow at a normal rate, which allows them to stay strong and healthy. A heritage hen can easily live 12 years or more if she isn’t brought to slaughter, while few Whites can survive even 2 years.
In the 46 years that he has been breeding turkeys, Reese has made a strong impression—his birds have been singled out for high praise by celebrity chef Mario Batali, featured on The Martha Stewart Show, and cited as a hallmark of progressive farming by Senator Robert Kennedy. But his goals are much more ambitious—and much more noble—than simply providing a new standard for culinary experts and reformers to crow over: Reese aims to permanently change the way that turkey farming is done in the United States—and he just might do it. “Industrialized farming is a dead end,” he says. “Industry turkeys are designed to make farmers reliant on industry systems that turn mongrels into production animals. Those turkeys wouldn’t survive a season or be able to reproduce without industry systems to support them.” To that end, Farm Forward is working closely with Reese to create vehicles for him to pass on his knowledge about turkey breeding, and poultry breeding generally, to a new generation of farmers who will put welfare, biodiversity, and sustainability at the center of their farms.
And Reese’s rise to prominence couldn’t have come at a better time. With more consumers than ever making active choices to support ethical, sustainable foods (Fairtrade certified products, for instance, reported $3.62 billion in sales in 2007, up 47 percent from the previous year1, Frank Reese’s vision for moving farming forward is in excellent shape, but today he is still the only farmer in America recognized by the USDA as a producer of heritage poultry. As progressive farmers begin to follow his lead, and the increasing percentage of consumers who have expressed a preference for natural, humanely raised poultry begin to turn their backs on factory-farmed meat, it may not be too long before most American turkeys are living, breeding, and looking a whole lot more like, well, turkeys.
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