Westport, Mass. Bill and Sherri Battles know the best way to save their rare red, gray and brown turkeys is to eat them.
Owners of a 25-acre farm in Westport, Mass., the Battles are among a small but growing number of farmers raising breeds of turkey with bloodlines that date back centuries yet are quite different — in size, taste and price — from the vast majority of birds sold at today's supermarkets.
Known as "heritage" turkeys, their survival may well hinge on Americans' willingness to create a market for them by putting them on their Thanksgiving tables.
"These are breeds that in order to keep them from becoming extinct, farmers have to raise them and people have to be willing to try them," said Sherri Battles, 44, as her husband placed a feed bucket in front of a gobbling gang of Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Chocolate and other heritage turkeys on a recent November day.
Domesticated breeds such as these were consumed for generations, but by the 1960s they began to be pushed aside in favor of the Broad Breasted White, a commercial breed developed to yield a meatier breast.
The Broad Breasted White reaches maturity in half the time as older breeds, making it cheaper to raise, cheaper to sell and creating lucrative markets for deli meat, ground turkey and other byproducts.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that nearly 242 million turkeys will be produced in the U.S. in 2010. Heritage birds make up only a tiny fraction.
Few major supermarket chains sell heritage turkeys, so few Americans have actually tasted them. Those who have generally note the birds have more dark meat and a flavor distinct from commercial turkeys.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization devoted to preserving historic breeds of farm animals, defines a heritage turkey as one that grows slower, lives longer and — perhaps most importantly — can mate on its own without human intervention, something the mass-produced turkey can no longer do. The ability to reproduce naturally is seen as vital to preserving the genetic diversity of the species and would be especially critical if the commercial turkey supply was ever ravaged by disease.
The ALBC conducted the first census of heritage turkeys in 1997 and could find only about 1,300 breeding birds (turkeys kept by farmers for breeding and not sold for meat) in the U.S., said Jennifer Kendall, the group's marketing and communications manager.
"It was shocking that these breeds that had been part of Thanksgivings forever, that were true American breeds ... were in such limited numbers," Kendall said.
The ALBC launched a campaign to convince farmers to embrace heritage turkeys but had trouble finding an owner's manual for those who were interested.
"We went back to old publications from 1900 to the 1920s, tried to resurrect the information about how do you breed them, how do you raise them," Kendall said.
Eventually, their efforts began to pay off. A 2006 census located about 10,000 breeding birds, and by now the number may be closer to 15,000, she said.
Sometimes called the "godfather" of heritage turkeys, Frank Reese has been hatching and raising them at his co-op farm in Lindsborg, Kan., for decades, though he prefers the term "standard bred" to heritage.
"I fell in love with the old breeds," Reese said. "They are far more beautiful, and they are far more practical than the genetically engineered, morbidly obese industrial turkeys that you buy at the store."
Reese said heritage turkeys generally take five to seven months to reach market weight. His average tom is about 18 to 22 pounds; hens are 12 to 14 pounds. A Broad Breasted White can reach 20 pounds in just three months, but the rapid growth and added bulk means it can barely walk, let alone fly.
The Battles, who also raise lambs, sheep and pigs on their Massachusetts farm, said they found buyers for the 20 heritage turkeys they raised this year but do not expect to turn a profit — despite the hefty price of $8 per pound they charge.
Not breeders themselves, the couple orders birds in the spring from a Wisconsin breeder. The day-old chicks are shipped to them by U.S. mail.
The Battles use only organic feed for their animals, increasing the expense of raising them. But even heritage turkeys that are not raised organically can cost customers $4 to $7 per pound — with additional expenses for shipping if there are no local suppliers — a far cry from the 89 cents per pound that supermarket turkeys might fetch.
Even if the Battles aren't making money on the turkeys, they say the effort is worth it.
"If you don't use these heritage breeds, they die off, and all you are going to be left with is these Broad Breasted White birds that can't walk on their own and can't breed on their own," Sherri Battles said.
Preserving the older breeds was one of the reasons that compelled Stella Park, of Lexington, Mass., and her husband to order a Thanksgiving turkey from the Battles for a second year in a row. But another reason was flavor.
"They taste really good. They make amazing broth," said Park, adding that her two young children loved the turkey noodle soup made from leftovers last year.