Backyard farmers with a large available space are turning to raising turkeys for meat and eggs. The modern domesticated turkey is a large poultry bird that readily converts foodstuffs into muscle and grows to a large size. Turkey eggs make excellent table fare; however, they are not commonly sold as food. Turkeys have a lower egg output than other fowl. Backyard farmers interested in only eggs stay with chickens due to their smaller size, lower food requirements and higher egg output. Turkey eggs from industrial farms are used by commercial hatcheries to produce more turkeys. Industrialized farming has made fresh turkey meat inexpensive and readily available. That said, industrial farms are no solution for those interested in an environmentally friendly, sustainable supply of high quality food.
The primary commercial turkey breed is the Broad-breasted Whites. Other breeds of turkeys include Broad-breasted Bronze, Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Slate or Blue Slate, Black (“Spanish Black”, “Norfolk Black”) Narragansett, Chocolate, Beltsville Small White and Midget White.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Geoffrey A. Fowler on heritage breed turkeys. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines heritage breed turkeys as follows:
Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. Turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:
1. Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%.
2. Long productive lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years.
Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26 – 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.
The article (available here) references the latest turkey census numbers gathered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The census shows a nearly 700% increase between 1997 and 2006 in the number of heritage turkeys raised for breeding in the U.S. The growing popularity of heritage turkeys is a great example of the interest in local, sustainably produced food.
The article briefly touches on the economics of heritage turkeys and includes these excerpts:
“Heritage turkeys, which include eight breeds certified by the American Poultry Association, take about twice as long to grow as commercial turkeys and cost about three times as much to raise.”
At retail, a 14-pound heritage bird can cost $100 or more.? Says Mr. Reese: “It is the difference between feeding an athlete and feeding a couch potato."
Some diners are turned off by the heritage turkey's slightly gamy flavor. But most sing its praises. Sam Perryman, a 26-year-old health-care administrator in Oakland, Calif., is a vegetarian for environmental reasons, but last year made an exception for a heritage turkey. "Thanksgiving is an important holiday for us, and we wanted to maintain the traditional approach" for nonvegetarian family, he says.?
After doing some research, he settled on a 23-pound Bourbon Red raised nearby that cost nearly $200. The grocer "knew everything about this bird—they probably even knew when its birthday was," he says.?
It’s exciting to see individuals and local companies find success in providing local, sustainable food products people want. Unfortunately a common misperception is that locally grown food is limited to niche products that are more expensive than food grown on industrial farms and sold at big box retail stores. I don’t begrudge anyone their success but a $200 thanksgiving turkey is out of reach for most people and feeds that misperception.
People are attracted to sensational stories and news providers give us what we want. The local food movement has a lot of work to do to overcome misperceptions about the cost of locally produced food. Here’s a link to a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Iowa State University taking this issue head-on.
Do you buy locally grown food? If so, why? And if not, why not?
The following is a list of turkey facts posted on the urban extension website of the University of Illinois. The website can be found here.
• Ben Franklin, in a letter to his daughter, proposed the turkey as the official United Statesbird.
• In 2008, the average American ate 17.6 pounds of turkey.
• 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
• Turkey consumption has increased 108% since 1970.
• Since 1970, turkey production in the United States has increased nearly 300 percent.
• In 2009, 250 million turkeys are expected to be raised in the United States.
• In 2007, 271,685,000 turkeys were produced in the United States.
• The turkey industry employees 20,000 to 25,000 persons in the United States.
• In 1970, 50 percent of all turkey consumed was during the holidays, now just 29 percent of all turkey consumed is during the holidays as more turkey is eaten year-round.
• In 2006, Turkey was the # 4 protein choice for American consumers behind chicken, beef and pork
• In 2007 42.6% of turkeys were sold to grocery stores and other retail outlets, 23.5% sold in commodity outlets, 17.7% sold to foodservice outlets and 8.5% were exported.
• The average weight of a turkey purchased at Thanksgiving is 15 pounds.
• The heaviest turkey ever raised was 86 pounds, about the size of a large dog.
• A 15 pound turkey usually has about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat.
• The wild turkey is native to Northern Mexico and the Eastern United States.
• The male turkey is called a tom.
• The female turkey is called a hen.
• The turkey was domesticated in Mexico and brought to Europe in the 16th century.
• Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour.
• Wild turkeys can run 20 miles per hour.
• Tom turkeys have beards. This is black, hair-like feathers on their breast. Hens sometimes have beards, too.
• Turkeys’ heads change colors when they become excited.
• Canadians consumed 138.6 million kg (Mkg) of turkey in the year 2005.
• Six hundred seventy-five million pounds of turkey are eaten each Thanksgiving in the United States.
• Turkeys can see movement almost a hundred yards away.
• Turkeys lived almost ten million years ago.
• Turkey feathers were used by Native Americans to stabilize arrows.
• Baby turkeys are called poults and are tan and brown.
• Turkey eggs are tan with brown specks and are larger than chicken eggs.
• It takes 75-80 pounds of feed to raise a 30 pound tom turkey.
• In 1920, U.S. turkey growers produced one turkey for every 29 persons in the U.S. Today growers produce nearly one turkey for every person in the country.
• The turkeys produced in 2007 together weighed 7.9 billion pounds and were valued at $3.7 billion.
• United States turkey growers will produce an estimated 271 million turkeys in 2008.
• Forty-five million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving.
• Twenty-two million turkeys are eaten each Christmas.
• Nineteen million turkeys are eaten each Easter.
• 29% of turkeys consumed in the United States are consumed during the holidays.
• Male turkeys gobble. Hens do not. They make a clicking noise.
• Gobbling turkeys can be heard a mile away on a quiet day.
• Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, California, Indiana, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Iowa were the leading producers of turkeys in 2008.
• Minnesota is expected to raise 45.5 million turkeys in 2009.
• Illinois produced 2.8 million turkeys in 2007.
• A 16 week old turkey is called a fryer. A five to seven month old turkey is called a young roaster and a yearling is a year old. Any turkey 15 months or older is called mature.
• The ballroom dance the "turkey trot" was named for the short, jerky steps that turkeys take.
• Turkeys don’t really have ears like ours, but they have very good hearing.
• Turkeys can see in color.
• A large group of turkeys is called a flock.
• Turkeys do not see well at night.
• A domesticated male turkey can reach a weight of 30 pounds within 18 weeks after hatching.
• Turkeys are related to pheasants.
• Commercially raised turkeys cannot fly.
• Wild turkeys spend the night in trees. They especially like oak trees.
• Wild turkeys were almost wiped out in the early 1900's. Today there are wild turkeys in every state except Alaska.
• Turkeys are believed to have been brought to Britain in 1526 by Yorkshire man William Strickland. He acquired six turkeys from American Indian traders and sold them for tuppence in Bristol.
• Henry VIII was the first English King to enjoy turkey and Edward VII made turkey eating fashionable at Christmas.
• In England, 200 years ago, turkeys were walked to market in herds. They wore booties to protect their feet. Turkeys were also walked to market in the United States.
• For 87% of people in the UK, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a traditional roast turkey.
• Turkey breeding has caused turkey breasts to grow so large that the turkeys fall over.
• June is National Turkey Lover’s Month.
• Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey and two dressed turkeys to the President. The President does not eat the live turkey. He "pardons" it and allows it to live out its days on a historical farm.
• The National Thanksgiving Turkey has been the Grand Marshall in the Thanksgiving Day Parade at both Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida for the past four years.
• The five most popular ways to serve leftover turkey is as a sandwich, in stew, chili or soup, casseroles and as a burger.
• Eating turkey does not cause you to feel sleepy after your Thanksgiving dinner. Carbohydrates in your Thanksgiving dinner are the likely cause of your sleepiness.
• 50 percent of U.S. consumers eat turkey at least once per week.
• According to the 2002 census, there were 8,436 turkey farms in the United States.
• Turkey is low in fat and high in protein.
• Turkey has more protein than chicken or beef.
• White meat has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat.
• Turkeys will have 3,500 feathers at maturity.
• Turkeys have been bred to have white feathers. White feathers have no spots under the skin when plucked.
• Most turkey feathers are composted.
• Turkey skins are tanned and used to make cowboy boots and belts.
• The costume that "Big Bird" wears on Sesame Street is rumored to be made of turkey feathers.
• Israelis eat the most turkeys.....28 pounds per person.
• The caruncle is a red-pink fleshy growth on the head and upper neck of the turkey.
• Turkeys have a long, red, fleshy area called a snood that grows from the forehead over the bill.
• The fleshy growth under a turkey’s throat is called a wattle.
• Giblets are the heart, liver, and gizzard of a poultry carcass. Although often packaged with them, the neck of the bird is not a giblet.
• Turkey eggs hatch in 28 days.
• The Native Americans hunted wild turkey for its sweet, juicy meat as early as 1000 A.D.
• Turkey feathers were used to stabilize arrows and adorn ceremonial dress, and the spurs on the legs of wild tom turkeys were used as projectiles on arrowheads.
• Number of places in the United States named after the holiday’s traditional main course. Turkey, Texas, was the most populous in 2005, with 492 residents; followed by Turkey Creek, Louisiana (357); and Turkey, North Carolina (269). There also are nine townships around the country named “Turkey,” three in Kansas.
Sources: National Turkey Federation, U.S.D.A., United States Census Bureau, Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, British Turkey Information Service, Canadian Turkey Marketing Association