Starting a Traditional Turkey Flock

niman mar16 turkey.jpg

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.