For thousands of years farmers around the world raised livestock and crops that fit their ecosystem. As the scientific community began to provide the means for larger and larger corporate farms to produce a more consistent product, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties began to disappear, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed. Fortunately, a growing number of sustainable farmers are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising “heritage” or “heirloom” animal breeds and crops.
It seems to be nonsensical that in order to save a heritage breed we need to eat it. What that means is an increased demand to eat a certain type of food increases the need to grow more of it. The farmers raise more the animals and use their own breeding stock to produce more and more.
Typically, heritage breeds cost the consumer a bit – or a lot – more than a grocery store store offering of the same food. For example, now right before Thanksgiving you can find a white breasted turkey for as little as 69 cents a pound. A heritage breed turkey may cost you $5 – $7 a pound. It is important to understand why the price difference, because when the economy has caused a strain on all of our budgets, we need to know why to bother paying more money to get the “same” thing.
- White breasted turkeys commercially raised for Thanksgiving have been bred to produce a huge breast of white meat, hence the name. Americans have shown a preference for white meat, or is it that white meat is so available now that most people eat that? Hard to know. But the turkeys are so off balance with this distribution of weight that they cannot fly. (They are birds and should be able to!) The largest birds are so heavy they usually cannot even stand. But that is okay, they are typically kept in a stack of cages so they don’t get to walk around anyway. (We won’t even go into what the birds in lower cages get on them from the birds on the upper cages.)
- Heritage breed turkeys, in comparison, are typically raised by farmers who believe in free ranging their animals. That means the turkeys get to walk around the area and fly when they want to. Now, the downside to “exercise” is that muscles get firmer. That means the meat has a “toothier” texture to it. (Think al dente pasta versus soft limp overcooked pasta to consider what that means. Basically, great flavor but geesh, you will have to use your teeth to actually chew a few times.)
- Commercial turkeys are part of a factory farm and thereby need to get to the end result, a saleable bird, as fast as possible. They are fed grains, including corn (but we won’t get into the effects of GMOs at this point) that are loaded with hormones and steroids, the better and faster to grow. They also receive antibiotics in their feed to keep them from getting sick. (Remember we said we were NOT going to talk about the stuff that comes from the cages above?) What this means is that most commercially grown turkeys in the supermarket feed you all those hormones and steroids and antibiotics along with the meat you eat.
- Heritage breed turkeys, being free-ranging birds, eat the way birds eat. They peck at insects, pick at seeds and berries, and generally get supplemental feed. The farmers who raise these turkeys are careful to use a mix of grains that typically do not include corn and perhaps are right here from farms in the Willamette Valley, an area supposedly free of GMOs. It takes longer for a turkey raised this way to reach a weight that is good to sell, so it costs more over time to feed that animal. But when you eat this turkey, you are getting meat. Period.
- Commercial turkeys, after processing, are injected with water (and “flavorings” and other things). Supposedly to help your cooking keep the meat moist, it essentially raises the weight you purchase at the check-out.
- Heritage breed turkeys are….turkeys. No extra fluid included.
So, they are not the “same” after all. Can you get a commercially raised turkey without all these chemicals and fluids? Yes, definitely. Organically raised birds are available in the supermarket but they will also cost considerably more than the national known labels.
Heritage breeds exist for all kinds of meat animals as well as heirloom breeds for vegetables and fruit. They typically have deeper richer flavors that you can savor and truly enjoy!! Let us know if you are interested in a heritage breed turkey for this Thanksgiving or Christmas. There are several farmers in the area who still have a few that have not been pre-ordered.