Why Buying a Heritage or Traditional Turkey for Thanksgiving Is Money Well Spent

This Thanksgiving, Americans will eat 46 million turkeys. But before you go to the market to prepare for your holiday meal, take a moment to think about where the bird you plan on purchasing came from. While our country's founders, and Native Americans long before them, ate wild turkeys, ( "social", "swift" and "respectable" native forest dwelling birds that Benjamin Franklin famously argued would have made a better national symbol than the ferocious "lazy" bald eagle) today most of us will eat a plump, inexpensive, factory farmed, domesticated breed called the Broad Breasted White. These birds, which cost on average about $1.42 per pound, or around $22 bucks for a 16 pound turkey, were developed in early in the 20th century specifically to produce a maximum amount of meat at a minimum cost. That's why shoppers seeking a humanely raised bird are often shocked to find the price hits about $100 to $120 for a pasture raised turkey. So why the big price difference between commercially produced and pasture raised turkeys?

Contracts and Corporate Control in Turkey Production

As Tom Philpott explains, the answer is that the low price of commercially produced turkeys reflects not only the height of industrial efficiency, but the power of corporations to exploit farmers. The turkey industry is incredibly consolidated, and just four companies - Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods - produce more than half of America's turkeys. These companies set up short- term and exploitative contracts with small scale farmers who often borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars (usually by mortgaging their farm) to pay for land, workers and the industrial barns where the birds are raised. The turkeys themselves are owned by one of the big four corporations whose drivers deliver chicks to the farmers along with feed, antibiotics and management directions. They are picked up again mere months later when they are ready for slaughter.

By both owning the animals and the meat processing plants where they are slaughtered, the big poultry companies get to retain the majority of profits while outsourcing most of the costs and risks to the farmers, who are often left on the edge of bankruptcy. Farmers therefore have very little ability to pay their workers a living wage and are often forced to raise animals under hyper efficient dirty and inhumane conditions mandated by the corporations they've contracted with. These factory farms often contain as many as 15,000 birds in a single facility and raise three flocks a year, producing an enormous amount of toxic, polluting excrement in the process.  After they reach the desired weight, the birds are brought via truck long distances to the corporate owner slaughterhouse, where workers are often exploited and subject to unsafe conditions and turkeys are mistreated and even abused.

Unfortunately, there are few legal protections for these farm workers. One of the most important laws on the books is the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 100 year old law that was developed in response to rising concerns over the growing monopolistic power of the "Big Five" meatpackers and designed to ensure effective competition and integrity in livestock, meat and poultry markets. However, one of the key provisions of the law was just recently undermined by the Trump Administration when it withdrew an Obama-era interim final rule a day before it went into effect that would have made it easier for independent farmers who raise chickens and other livestock for big food companies to bring lawsuits against those companies.

A Sustainable, Humanely Raised Turkey

But not all farm workers and turkeys suffer the same fate. The luckier of turkeys have the good fortune to be raised on pasture on an independently operated small scale farm. One such farm is the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Here, animals are encouraged to engage in their natural behaviors while the farmers who raise them participate in educational programming to learn best practices and spread sustainable farming initiatives far and wide.

Stone Barns Center for Food and AgricultureStone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Photo credit: Maggie Tauranac.

The 350 turkeys cultivated at Stone Barns each year are raised in the woodlands of the property as a part of a whole farm system that puts the health and soil of the animals first. Although their birds are of the broad breasted variety - Broad Breasted Bronzes, a rare commercial breed that fell out of favor with consumers decades ago because of their dark pin feathers - and not a heritage breed, their lives are wildly different from the Butterballs raised in factory farms and sold in your local grocery store. At Stone Barns, the birds are allowed to roam outdoors freely, foraging in forests eating a diet of grass, organic grains, seeds, insects and worms all while fertilizing the ground behind them. The birds are also an integral part of the farm's management. "The turkeys definitely play a role in our farm's fertility," Assistant Livestock Manger manager Phil Haynes told us in an interview last month. "Other than what they're doing in the forest to help fertilize the ground, we clear all the bedding out from their barn at the end of the season and pile it up at our compost side...[where] it becomes usable nutrients for our vegetables."

These turkeys come from Moyer's Chicks in Pennsylvania and are raised at Stone Barns from tiny chicks by the two livestock managers who work on the idyllic farm. Stone Barns also has a state-inspected slaughterhouse facility on site, so the birds never have to leave the grounds and the farmers are able to provide their customers with complete transparency into the turkey's lifecycle, as Haynes explains:

"They come here as day old poults, little dots, little fuzzy turkeys. And I unpack them out of the box and then I'm the one that, you know, ends them. So it's sort of poetic in a way I guess. By being handled by someone they're familiar with, it lowers their stress. And so we are able to...provide quality control for the meat. As farmers, something that we always struggle with is finding a slaughterhouse or processor that we feel comfortable with; because the moment that you send your animal out to another third party before it reaches your customer...you've lost control. And so if you don't have a place you like and....is humane, all the hard work you did to raise that ethical animal and make it delicious can just get completely ruined because the animal was stressed in the last moments of its life...[which] ruins the quality of the meat."

Stone Barns chose the Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys because they look similar to the common Broad Breasted White variety customers are familiar with, can be cooked the same way, grow quickly and can be herded early. Broad Breasted Bronzes take about half the time and half the feed to get to market size as a heritage breed. Also, they are a lot easier on the land than heritage birds, which according to Haynes have more wild foraging instincts that can ultimately cause a lot of damage to farm land. These birds also have a lot more dark meat, which is delicious but can be easily dried out and a bit challenging for less experienced cooks to work with.

Phil Haynes Visiting His Flock of TurkeysPhil Haynes Visiting His Flock of Turkeys. Photo credit: Kate Johnson.

According to Stone Barns, there is a lot more demand now for humanely raised heritage and traditional breeds because consumers want animals that have been raised outdoors and in tune with their natural instincts. To do this, however, you need a breed of animal with a lot of hardiness and some of its wild behaviors still intact. Heritage and traditional breeds have these characteristics and thus are perfect for small scale, sustainable farming.

How to Find Better Turkey Options

While it's too late to get your hands on a Stone Barns turkey this year (they sold out weeks ago), there are many other options available to consumers who would like to support farms like Stone Barns that treat both their farmers and turkeys humanely. Farmers' markets often have vendors that raise turkeys on pasture and outdoors. Many independent butcher shops have developed relationships with local farmers that provide them with fresh turkeys for the holidays. There are also many online resources for humanely raised animals like Animal Welfare Approved and Heritage Foods USA. But as you shop, just keep in mind that unlike the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label which has stringent animal welfare standards for their producers, labels like "cage free" and "naturally raised" don't offer any indication that the turkey you are buying was raised humanely. What's key for shoppers to know is where your turkey came from, and being able to ask questions and gain insight into how it was produced. "We can provide full transparency, 100 percent" explained Haynes. "...we can tell [customers] every part about that turkey's life. And so you know, for people who want to get more in touch with their food, I certainly recommend buying turkeys for the holiday that is processed on farm."

While the kind of transparency found at Stone Barns might come with a heftier price tag, you can feel good knowing that the turkey on your holiday table led a good life, helped support a sustainable farmer, and was gentle on the environment.

Turkeys Grazing in Stone Barnes WoodlandsTurkeys Grazing in Stone Barnes Woodlands. Photo credit: Maggie Tauranac.

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