Heritage Turkeys: Worth the Cost?

Narragansetts, Bourbon Reds, and the like cost about five times as much as standard Thanksgiving birds. So should you buy a main course that will gobble your wallet?


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.