Posted on Tue, November 04, 2008 by Jerusha Klemperer
2 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming, Youth Food Movement,
by Slow Food USA intern, Cecilia Estriech
As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are steeling ourselves for yet another holiday feast featuring a mealy industrially produced bird. Turkey, in most American households, is the white elephant on the buffet tableeveryone knows that the nearly ubiquitous broad-breasted white is dry and flavorless, but most of us are too polite to say anything (it is a holiday after all). The members of Slow Food Russian River are trying to change our turkey experience one heritage breed at a time.
Situated in Californias Sonoma valley where the broad-breasted white was first bred in the 1950s, Slow Food Russian River has established the Heritage Turkey Project to encourage the production of endangered breeds. The three-year old program partners with 4-H and Future Farmers of America to get kids in the region involved in raising the turkeys. Every year, six to ten young people raise two-hundred heritage breed turkeys provided by the Russian River chapter. Once they reach maturity, the birds are sold at market price$7.50 per pound this year. For their labor, the kids receive all the revenue from sales.
In addition to providing kids with hands-on experience working with heritage breeds, it also encourages consumers in the community to expand their palates. Russian River committee leader Rick Theis remarks that residents are learning about Heritage Turkeys and the Slow Food Movement, and tasting the results. The turkeys have become so popular, in fact, that they consistently sell out with an ample waitlist.
Although they command a higher price than the average frozen Butterballcommercially produced birds are often sold at a loss near Thanksgivingthe quality of heritage turkey meat justifies the cost. But farmers arent raising these birds to get rich, they cost more because heritage turkeys are raised in smaller quantities and with different, more expensive methodsthey live longer, grow slower, eat more and have more room per bird.
Theis reports that the meat on the birds is darker and moister than the broad-breasted white with a flavor that closely resembles duck. Because farmers let the birds grow to maturity and allow them to spend time pecking for nutrients in real dirt, they develop a depth and complexity that cannot be found in conventionally produced turkeys.
This year, the project continues to garner new successes and awareness. Two of the birds won top awards at the Sonoma County Fair and subsequently sold for $500 and $450 at auction. Perhaps their greatest achievement, however, is their role in encouraging small local farms to raise the birds. Already, Redwood Empire Farms, a small, cruelty-free poultry operation, and the ranch of one of the 4-H members have started to produce more heritage breed turkeys. Ideally, with increasing demand, more farmers will follow suit to secure a permanent place for the birds in the local food system and on our thankful tables.