Starting a Traditional Turkey Flock

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Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman

With the arrival of longer days, we are making ready for a new undertaking here: turkey breeding. Our turkeys are closely related to their non-domesticated cousins. (They are called "unimproved" by agribusiness and "much better" by us.) Our barns have no artificial lighting, so their breeding will closely follow the patterns of their wild kin. And unlike the modern, industrial turkey variety (which is incapable of reproduction absent artificial insemination), our turkeys will mate naturally.

When we decided last spring to start raising turkeys here, we knew we wanted hearty, old breeds and the best lineages available. In our view, this meant that there was only one place to go: Lindsborg, Kansas, to the farm of Frank Reese. As a young man, Frank had befriended some of the nation's best turkey breeders and, at a certain point, committed himself to maintaining the superior poultry lines they had long labored to preserve. In a rented car, we placed 225 newly hatched baby turkeys (called "poults") on the back seat and raced toward California. We took turns driving and headed west through five states with only brief stops for food and bathroom breaks.

Arriving in Bolinas about 35 hours later and road-weary, we placed the fuzzy, golf-ball-sized critters into the heated, bedded space we'd prepared for them before we left home. Over the next seven months, we learned a lot about turkeys and decided that we liked them. They seemed to like us, too. So, we decided to begin our own breeding flock. Mating season is early spring, so we're preparing for that now. More on that in the days ahead.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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