Heritage Turkeys: Worth the Cost?

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Nicolette Hahn Niman


American shoppers expect to pay more for foods raised without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and antibiotics. But when it comes to the Thanksgiving turkey the price differential understandably raises some eyebrows, with many supermarkets offering frozen commodity turkeys for around $1.50 a pound while a heritage bird costs around $7 a pound. Many consumers, especially if they haven't tasted a heritage turkey, wonder whether that splurge is really worth it.

We are purveyors of naturally raised heritage turkeys, and it will come as no surprise that we feel they are worth every penny. The dozens of chefs and customers who've told us that ours was the best-tasting turkey they'd ever eaten would likely agree. The short answer is, "You get what you pay for." For a meatier response, read on.

First, in many ways the commodity turkey is artificially cheap. In the immediate sense, industrial methods do lower production costs. These include intensive crowding in metal confinement buildings; minimal human care, made possible by total confinement and mechanized feed and water systems; and reliance on cheap feeds (often including slaughterhouse wastes and a panoply of pharmaceuticals). Government subsidies and lax enforcement of environmental laws also enable (and cheapen) industrial food production. The result of this system is water, air, and soil polluted by agricultural waste; meat with high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and animal suffering on an unprecedented scale. Although these costs don't show up on our grocery receipts, they are real and, ultimately, we all pay them.

The heritage turkey is closely related to its wild ancestors; it is heartier, healthier, and capable of natural mating, running,
and flying.

On the flip side, it's simply more expensive to raise turkeys naturally, especially heritage birds. The modern turkey (the Broad-Breasted White) has been selected generation after generation for two main traits: white meat and fast growth. The oversized breasts of the Broad-Breasted White render it incapable of flight or natural mating. As it matures, it has difficulty walking. The heritage turkey, on the other hand, is closely related to its wild ancestors; it is heartier, healthier, and capable of natural mating, running, and flying. This enables farms raising heritage turkeys to raise them without drugs. It also makes them more work to raise.

Like their wild cousins, heritage birds grow at a pace set by nature. Heritage turkeys typically take almost twice as much time to reach maturity as Broad-Breasted Whites. From a farming standpoint, the growth rate has enormous economic consequences. Double the maturation time means double the cost for feed, labor, and overhead (like maintenance of buildings and waterlines). It also means a lost opportunity to raise more turkeys and that each animal has more opportunities to get sick, be injured, or die prematurely. These differences result in much of the price gap.

Living conditions are another important factor. Here on our ranch—typical of farms raising heritage turkeys—turkeys live in spacious barns at night and have daily access to large fields for exercise, fresh air, and foraging. We use only natural feeds that contain neither drugs nor animal by-products. Guardian dogs keep predators at bay. Each of these elements adds cost but we consider them important to environmentally sustainable, humane farming that produces healthy food.

Slaughter and processing are yet another element of the equation. Our turkeys are slaughtered at a small slaughterhouse, which we carefully selected, and with our personal supervision. We have witnessed neither mishandling of the live birds nor ineffective stunning of them prior to slaughter. After slaughter, our turkeys are chilled by cold air, not water. This is a major difference from larger-scale operations that put all the turkeys into a single chilling bath. Water-chilling is known to contribute to bacterial contamination of poultry carcasses. It has nonetheless become the norm in both chicken and turkey processing for two main reasons: It's a cheaper, faster process and it adds water to the carcass, which bolsters profits. (As much as 5 to 15 percent of the weight of water-chilled poultry comes from the water-chilling process.) By working with a smaller slaughterhouse, personally supervising the kill, and using only air-chilling, we are adding cost to the turkeys. Because these things ensure humane handling throughout the animal's life, safer meat, and a better eating experience, we think they're worth it.

Finally, our turkeys (the vast majority of which are sold locally) are truly fresh, not frozen. Even "deep-chilled" turkeys, which are often sold as "fresh," are essentially being frozen. Frozen meat can be very good, but many chefs and connoisseurs say they can tell the difference. The vast majority of turkey meat sold in the United States today has been frozen solid, usually for many months.

Like other farmers, we make every effort to keep down the costs of the food we produce. But we are also fully committed to creating food that is delicious, safe, healthy, environmentally sound, and humanely raised. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford a heritage turkey this year. But for those who can, we think it's a good value.

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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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