Back from the brink in time for the holidays

We pile out of our car after the two-hour drive from Oakland to the Capay Valley and have not walked more than 10 steps before the welcome party, a gaggle of about 20 tom turkeys, waddles up to greet us. They stop as a group a few feet away and begin gently jostling each other. One by one, each colorful gobbler works his way to the front of the pack, fans out his characteristic tail feathers, and lets out a loud “gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble!”

This visit to Wind Dancer Ranch, one of several area farms taking part in the heritage turkey revival, is part of our family’s Thanksgiving tradition. We are here to pick up our turkey. Wind Dancer’s owner, Lisa Leonard, emerges from the farmhouse and joins us on the lawn in front of the colorful, noisy group of preening birds. My elder daughter, Ilana, turns to Leonard and asks, “What are they doing?”

“They are trying to catch your attention.” she replies. “Really, this little dance is for the hens, but they’re happy to show off to anyone.”

Ilana picks up on Leonard’s polite innuendo and lets out a laugh. “Skye,” she calls to her sister. “They are trying to mate with us!”

Ilana is recalling something we learned two years ago when we read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver’s account of her experiences raising and breeding heritage turkeys. Natural mating is not a trait desired in industrial turkey farming. In fact sexual competitiveness is undesirable, as it would cause turkeys confined to small spaces to attack each other. Over the generations, the birds have forgotten how to do it; they must be artificially inseminated. Kingsolver recounted the mating dance that we were witnessing, and the subsequent clumsiness as two of her turkeys attempted to reach into their genetic memories to consummate an act that their recent forebears had never enjoyed.

I was at the beginning of my food re-education at the time we read the book, and was shocked at the statistics Kingsolver cited. “Of the 400 million turkeys Americans consume each year, more than 99 percent of them are a single breed: the Broad Breasted White, a quick fattening monster bred specifically for the industrial-scale setting.” She goes on to explain that these birds have been selected generation after generation solely on the size of their breasts, and often they are too front-heavy to stand or walk even if they were raised in an environment that allowed them such luxuries.

talking heritage turkey

So what makes up the other tiny percentage? They are heritage breeds with names that elicit images of beauty and variety: Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Spanish Black. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a clearinghouse for information on genetic diversity in the American livestock population, a heritage breed must meet three criteria:

First, it must be able to mate naturally. Leonard’s turkey hens, while they certainly do not realize it, are a part of the privileged few who are allowed to choose their mates based on the beauty of their tail feathers.

Second, the heritage turkey must have a long, productive outdoor lifespan. For a breeding pair of turkeys, life expectancy is 5 to 7 years, but the majority of turkeys consumed each Thanksgiving have been harvested in their first year. Also, “outdoor” is key here. Most heritage breed turkeys are raised on small farms like Wind Dancer, and they spend their days wandering around eating grass and bugs as well as the feed provided to them. The poor Broad-Breasted White is rumored to be so stupid that it can drown by looking up at the rain, and it’s pretty doubtful it could run for cover when a golden eagle comes circling overhead.

Third and finally, a heritage breed must have a slow growth rate, reaching market size in about 28 weeks compared to the 18 weeks that it takes a Broad-Breasted White. The slower growth not only allows the skeleton to develop properly to hold up the weight of the bird, but most agree that it allows the flesh to mature properly, resulting in a better tasting, better textured meat.

Why have we moved away from slow-growing, naturally mating, better-tasting turkeys?

“They just don’t yield as much meat,” says Tim Diestel of Diestel Turkey Ranch, which is located across the Central Valley in Sonora. “They are pretty birds, and they taste good, but they are not what we expect anymore.”

At Diestel’s ranch, they are experimenting with crossing the heritage American Bronze with other breeds of turkeys to capture the best of both worlds. “Consumers have grown used to big, meaty turkeys. We are trying to find a middle ground.”

The “American Heirloom” turkeys raised on Diestel’s ranch are not recognized heritage breeds, but they are smaller, the dark meat is darker, and the taste is richer than a standard supermarket turkey.

“I think the best part of the project, though, is the birds themselves,” says Diestel. “They are so colorful. It is wonderful to see them walking around.”

A twist of fate that sets endangered and threatened livestock apart from, say, spotted owls, is that the best and possibly only way to bring these species back from the brink of extinction is to encourage people to eat them!

Lisa Leonard, who caught the turkey bug four years ago, tends the farm with her boyfriend, Jim Craven. Their interest in raising heritage meat animals—hogs, rabbits, sheep, and chickens, as well as the turkeys—came from a simple desire to share with their friends the diversity of tastes available from heritage breeds. “It just grew by word of mouth from there.”

While it is clear that Leonard cares a great deal about all of the animals on her farm, the turkeys seem to hold a special place in her heart. “You know, they are not rocket scientists or anything,” she says and then chuckles, “but I have been really surprised at how engaged they are. They love people. They follow me around the ranch. They hang out while we harvest the almonds and eat any that fall to the ground. They look in the windows in the morning waiting for us to come out.” One turkey, Pokey, is particularly fond of poking her head under whatever piece of machinery Craven happens to be working on.

“It does make it a bit hard at Thanksgiving,” she says. “I never expected to become so attached.”

Over the years, Leonard and Craven have figured out what breeds are best suited to the local climate. “It gets pretty cold in the winters around here, and in the summer it just bakes. We can get up to 120 degrees in the valley, so the Spanish Blacks seem to do well because the weather here is a lot like Spain.”

All of the birds on Leonard’s farm reproduce naturally. “We have to keep a close eye on them around breeding time because they like to go and find some remote corner of the orchard to lay their eggs, and then they are susceptible to the coyotes.” Their breeding has been going so well, in fact that this year Leonard has sold off a number of young poults to neighboring farms.

One mother tricked them this year, surprising Craven and Leonard when she emerged from the barn one morning with six babies in tow. “It is so fun watching them grow up with their mothers.” Leonard says. “Up to a certain age, they do not leave her side, then they start to separate from her. Then, the boys start to only want to hang out with the boys, and the girls hang out with the girls.”

Another thing that Leonard has noticed is how loyal the turkeys are to family. “Even as adult birds, if a tom is hassling a hen, she lets out a special call, and all of her sisters will run to her side. Then, all of a sudden, that tom has five hens to deal with instead of just one,” Leonard says. “The girls nest together, and raise their little ones together. It really is quite beautiful to watch.”

Leonard is right, the turkeys are striking, and more than that, they are also delicious. The first year we served a Wind Dancer turkey for Thanksgiving, we ignored Leonard’s recommendation and brined it. Brining has become increasingly popular in recent years in part because standard turkeys are lacking in flavor. “Oh no, no, no, never brine them,” Leonard explained. “Part of the draw of a turkey like ours is the taste. Each breed tastes different, and they take on a taste unique to where it is raised.”

The following year I followed her recommendations to the word. We rubbed the turkey with copious amounts of warm butter, salt, and pepper, stuffed the cavity with fresh herbs from the garden and a quartered apple, then watched the thermometer more closely than the timer. My wife’s Italian family is an honest bunch on all accounts, but especially so when it comes to food, and all at the table agreed that it was the best turkey they had ever tasted.

Nicholas Taylor is a writer, an urban homesteader, and a homeschooling parent to his two daughters. He lives in Oakland.

Wind Dancer Ranch has sold out of heritage turkeys for this Thanksgiving, but their website and farm are good places to learn about other heritage breeds such as Navajo-Churro sheep, American rabbits, Tamworth/Berkshire and Berkshire “Kurobuta” hogs, Spanish Arabian horses, and many varieties of heritage chickens.



Thanksgiving Cranberry and Hawthorn Sauce

My wife, an acupuncturist and herbalist, modified this recipe from one given her by Mayway Corp., an Oakland-based importer of Chinese herbs and herbal formulas. According to Chinese medicine, hawthorn berries, or shan zha, help to break down meat and alcohol in the stomach and ease digestion after a large meal. The dried shan zha are available in Oakland Chinatown. Check that they are unsulfured.            —NT

2 cups dried shan zha (hawthorn berries)

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

4 cups fresh cranberries

4 tablespoons grated rind of meyer lemon or orange

Soak shan zha for 30 minutes. Remove pits; they’re small and very hard, so take your time and make sure you get them all. Strain shan zha, discarding water, and place in a pan with water and sugar. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add cranberries, return to a boil, and simmer until cranberries pop, about 10 minutes. Add citrus rind and allow to cool. Serves a crowd.

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