A Brief History of Tom

A Brief History of Tom

“…when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”

William Beebe, American Naturalist and Explorer

1,335. That’s the number of Heritage Turkeys that remained in the United States in 1997, a number dangerously close to extinction. The Heritage Turkey, indigenous to North and South America, is the bird that our fore-bearers served on the Thanksgiving table, and is part of our American cultural treasury–every bit as iconic as George Washington, the Redwood Forests, and the Liberty Bell. But how did we come so close to losing this national treasure?

For the better part of America’s 225+ year history, turkeys were raised in range environments: breeds like the Narragansett, Royal Palm, and Bourbon Red. Between 1920 – 1950, however, a new breed (the Broad Breasted Bronze) was developed to meet a demand for greater breast widths and bigger birds, a breed which began to dominate the marketplace and displace the heritage breeds. From the 1960s on, a new breed eclipsed the Broad Breasted Bronze in popularity: the Large or Broad Breasted White Turkey, desirable because it lacked the black pin feathers which were a feature of other birds. The modern turkey industry has gotten increasingly better at developing these commercial breeds to yield maximum amounts of meat from low feed inputs, thus driving down the cost of the Thanksgiving Turkey to between $1 to $2 per pound. One of the costs of this advance, however, is that the modern Broad Breasted Bronze and Large or Broad Breasted White Turkeys cannot reproduce naturally; all require artificial insemination.

10,404. That’s the number of heritage turkeys in 2006, and their numbers are on the rise every year. Unlike their modern counterparts, heritage turkeys mate naturally, can fly and stand on their own two feet. Their slower growth rates–about 28 weeks opposed to as little as the 18 weeks of modern turkey production–means meat whose flavor has had time to develop and mature. Age imparts flavor, and those who’ve tried heritage turkey note the superior taste that comes from America’s culinary past.

Author’s Note

Pre-sales of heritage turkeys from Duba & Co. begin this week. Not only do they meet all of the requirements of The Livestock Conservancy, they are GMO-free and have spent much of their time on pasture. They are raised by Idle River Farms in Burlington, Michigan.

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