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Heritage Turkeys: Birds With Historic Flavor

Ben Franklin thought the turkey would make a better national bird than the bald eagle, but he would barely recognize the big birds that we feast on today. Up in Sparks, Md., he might find a flock more to his liking.

There, farmer David Smith is raising "heritage" turkeys, smaller, more flavorful breeds that have more in common with their wild cousins than the huge, double-breasted birds that have become the commercial standard.

"There's been an increasing interest around the country in getting back to the way things used to be," Smith said. "The way things ought to be."

There are eight varieties of heritage turkeys, according to Slow Food U.S.A., a nonprofit that encourages preservation of traditional American foods and cooking methods.

The primary distinctions among the subbreeds are their colors and the region of origin: Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, White Holland, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm. Many of those varieties can be found at Springfield farm, where Smith is raising about 200 of them.

Unlike the Large White, which requires artificial insemination, these varieties can reproduce naturally. The other thing they can do is fly, and one occasionally decides to take its leave of the farm. "Probably to run off with some wild turkeys," Smith said.

Smith said he has a steady customer base of about 250 people, most of whom are in the Baltimore area. He gets visitors from Washington, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He also supplies turkey, chicken and eggs to about 20 restaurants in Baltimore.

Cindy Wolf, executive chef at Charleston restaurant in Baltimore, is among Smith's customers. She said she buys Smith's turkeys because they are an old breed and she does not want to see them become extinct.

"They're also an excellent eating turkey, with more dark meat, more flavor." She buys 20 to 25 turkeys each year around Thanksgiving, and prepares them simply, with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh thyme.

About 300 people will join Wolf in picking up Springfield turkeys this year. The weekend before Thanksgiving is the biggest sales weekend of the year.

Neil Kurlander and Lauren Schaefer stopped by last week to buy a turkey ("for practice") and ordered their Thanksgiving turkey to pick up Saturday.

They said they drive up from Baltimore every few weeks to buy poultry and eggs, on a recommendation from a natural foods store in Timonium where they regularly shop.

These turkeys are very different from the ones you typically pick up in the grocery store. For one, they are smaller at about 16 to 18 pounds, with a more balanced proportion of dark meat to white meat. A typical Large White for instance, has nearly 70 percent white meat; the heritage breeds are about 50-50.

Springfield turkeys are also pricier, at about $4.75 a pound. "We have no 69 cents a pound turkeys," Smith said.

That price is driven as much by Smith's farming techniques as by the breeds. At 63, Smith is fit and outgoing. He came to poultry farming after careers in the Army and at a military contractor, learning the business by attending conferences and through participating in such organizations as Future Harvest and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. Now, he attends those same conferences as a speaker.

Springfield Farm is a family affair, co-run with his wife Lilly, his daughter and son-in-law, and his two grandchildren.

He's happy to explain his farming philosophy, roaming around the land that has been in his family since the 1640s in an old golf cart.

"We're natural, but not organic," he explains. That means the animals graze on pastures, protected from predators by electric fencing. The farm does not rely on antibiotics or growth stimulants. Processing is done by hand. He said he still reserves the right to use herbicides to control noxious weeds.

The electric fencing allows him to move the pastures around, which also limits the environmental damage the animals could cause. Of the farm's 67 acres, only about 15 are used for production at any one time. "There's no impact on the watershed," he said.

What keeps him from being certified organic is his feed supply. He wants to buy his feed locally, and there's simply not an adequate local supply of organic grain. Instead, he buys natural feed from a mill in Westminster. "It just doesn't make sense to truck in organic grain from the Midwest," he said.

He relies solely on direct sales. He has been approached by farmers markets, but he does not see the benefit of trucking his products down to Baltimore or Washington, not when so many customers are willing to come to him. "I can barely keep up with demand as it is," Smith said.

The percentage of turkeys sold directly from the farm to the consumer is a blip in Maryland agriculture overall. About 750,000 turkeys, with a total weight of 13 million pounds, were raised in Maryland last year, with a total value of $5.7 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But a couple hundred heritage birds is no blip to small farmers like Smith, who've found a way to thrive in an otherwise unforgiving business. Smithfield Farms has been profitable since he opened for business six years ago, Smith said. "My first five-year business plan was blown out of the water."

Now that's something else that would impress old Ben Franklin.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.