Heritage turkeys offer Thanksgiving tables a tastier treat

Published on Tue, Nov 20, 2012 by Brandy Kiger

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It’s time to talk turkey.

Turkey has long been the centerpiece of American Thanksgiving celebrations, with its oversized body ample to feed an entire family and then some. And each year, millions of Americans flock to the store, buy their frozen turkey, and faithfully roast the bird while giving little thought to where it came from or what breed they are purchasing.

It’s tradition, after all.

Commercially-bred turkeys weigh upward of 22 pounds, and offer more meat than most families can handle. Leftovers go on for days, and for many it’s one of the best parts of the holidays, despite the occasional complaints of the meat being dry, tough or tasteless.

But that’s what gravy is for, right?

Craig Mayberry of Heritage Lane Farms in Lynden says that it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Mayberry’s Thanksgiving table is graced by a heritage breed turkey each year – a Narragansett turkey – and he declares the bird to be the best-tasting turkey you can get. 

“We’ve never had a dry turkey [from our breeds],” he said. “Even when we butcher the cooking, it’s still moist. Turkey can be dry and bland, but these have a really good flavor to them. It’s different.” 

Heritage breed turkeys are breeds that retain historic characteristics that are not present in the majority of turkeys raised for consumption. They are biologically capable of being raised in a manner that closely resembles the natural behavior and life cycle of wild turkeys, and have a longer lifespan and much slower growth rate than commercially-bred turkeys.

Mayberry picked Narragansett turkeys because the birds have a history, he said

“These are the kinds of turkeys you would have found on homesteads. This is what settlers would have brought with them.”  

The Narragansett is a cross between wild turkeys and domestic turkeys brought over by European colonists, and is named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the breed was developed. Narragansetts were recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874. 

According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization working to conserve rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, the Narragansett turkey is a threatened breed. 

“When we moved to commercial agriculture, the aim was to get the animals as big as you can as fast as you can. The Narragansett almost went extinct,” Mayberry said. 

Which is what led Mayberry to raise them. 

His farm specializes in heritage breeds – turkeys, geese, ducks, sheep, chickens and pigs. “We’re trying to revive these breeds, and the best way to do it is to create a consumer demand for them,” he said. “If people demand heritage meat, then farmers will raise heritage animals and we’ll be able to get the numbers up.”

He admits that it’s not easy though. The birds yield smaller amounts of meat than commercial varieties, with hens generally weighing in around 12 pounds before butchering and the toms at an even 20.  Plus, the breed is delicate and the poults have a high mortality rate. The growth rate is an issue as well. 

“They grow more slowly,” Mayberry said. “Heritage breeds mature slower than commercial varieties. The turkeys you see in the store take five to six months to reach that size, but heritage breeds can take eight to nine months.”

But that slow growth is the key to the heightened flavor. At seven months, the heritage turkeys develop a layer of fat under the skin, a quality that commercial breeds don’t live long enough to acquire. 

That added fat keeps the bird moist while cooking and increases the flavor of the bird, Mayberry said. A longer maturation period equals higher costs, but he said it’s worth it. “It’s a tradeoff. It takes longer to grow them, but at the end of the day you have a better tasting turkey.”

In his third year of turkey farming, Mayberry said he’s beginning to have some success. He’s developing a breeding stock and will have turkeys available for sale come Christmas.

For more information about the work Mayberry is doing with heritage breeds, visit heritagelanefarm.net or call 360/441-9903.