For many people, Thanksgiving is a time to sit down and eat piles of turkey surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. The catch: Most of us still have no idea where our turkey came from or how it was raised. While much of the protein world has already shifted to healthy and humanely raised meat, the turkey has lagged behind. There are however a handful of wonderful turkey farmers growing healthy, happy, tasty turkeys right under our noses. We had the good fortune of getting to know one recently.
If you were one of the lucky ones able to scoop up a pasture raised turkey from Little Bend Heritage Farm this year (they just sold out!), not only will you know exactly where your bird came from, you can feel pretty darn good knowing your bird lived a good life. The Bourbon Red Turkey is known to many chefs as the best tasting bird around, and thanks to the nice folks at Little Bend going out of their way to preserve this special breed of heritage turkey, next Thanksgiving your carving table can feature one.
Heritage Breeds by Definition
have a story to tell
We want to congratulate Steve and Little Bend Heritage Farm for the great work they do and for selling out of this year's turkeys. You can order turkeys next year from Little Bend directly or check out the crop shares available at Cooks of Crocus Hill.
What is the main mission of your farm?
To provide a great tasting, alternative meat selection that people know were humanely raised and to help save the Bourbon Red heritage turkey which is on the watch list of heritage animals.
Can you tell us about your operation?
We started raising Bourbon Red turkeys 3 years ago. We started out with 10 hens and 3 toms. This year we had 35 hens and 5 toms and we sold 300 eggs for hatching, 400 poults (baby turkeys), and 250 turkeys for processing. Next year we will have 75 hens and 15 toms and are forecasting selling 700 eggs, 750 poults, and 400 processed turkeys.
You guys are known for your Heritage Turkeys–what else is going on around the farm?
I got into beekeeping a couple of years ago and next year we will have 15 beehives which we will sell the honey and beeswax products. Also this year we decided to grow gourmet garlic so next summer we will be selling that as well.
Let’s talk heritage Turkeys, specifically the Bourbon Red, how did you guys arrive at this breed?
A co-worker’s children had raised some for a 4-H project and he did not want to keep them so I took them as I thought they would be a good meat source for my family. But after researching them and finding out that there were not many Bourbon Red turkeys left I knew I had to do something to help save these majestic animals. With more research I found that there is a niche market for the turkeys and I believe the best way to save the Bourbon Red turkey is through promotion to get people to eat them rather than the factory turkeys.
What exactly is a heritage turkey?
A heritage turkeys is a domestic turkey which has kept it historic characteristics from turkeys that were brought to America by the settlers and bred to the Native American wild turkeys. In order to be classified a heritage turkey the turkeys must meet the following criteria:
- Naturally mating: The Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. This means that turkeys marketed as “heritage” must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
- Long productive outdoor lifespan: The Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. The Heritage Turkey must also have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.
- Slow growth rate: The Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.
Do Heritage Turkey’s require any specific cooking or preparation methods?
All heritage turkeys have a greater dark meat to light meat ratio and also given the fact that our Bourbon Red turkeys are not injected with a water/salt solution means that our turkey cooks faster than the standard factory turkeys you find in your grocery store. Other than the shorter cooking nothing else is different. However; the meat is more savory due to the slower growth period and the natural diet they receive. Check out their website for some of their trusted recipes.
What are the biggest challenges you’ll face or are currently facing this season?
Matching the amount of turkeys to raise to the customer demand. Unlike beef, pork, or chicken, turkey is mainly a seasonal meat and it is hard to get someone to think about a turkey until it gets close to Thanksgiving. This means we have to forecast demand very carefully as it take 6 months to grow our turkeys unlike the 3 months it take to raise a factory turkey.
What are you most proud of this season?
Getting our website up and running, securing a large turkey contract to a major cooking school in the Twin Cities area, and being able to reach a large audience to teach them about our Bourbon Red turkeys but also about the simple heritage lifestyle.
How can people support what you’re doing?
The best way is to visit our website where you can buy our hatching eggs, poults, and our processed turkeys. Next year we plan to expand the store to include the honey and gourmet garlic as well. Also, people can visit our website and read our blogs and watch our videos as a way to support us and get the word out.
What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?
Patience, and a love of animals and farming. A willingness to put all your heart and faith into the animals, the farm, and yourself.