A couple of really thick days, the last few, the kind that remind you what living in the south used to be like before air conditioning. The “Raising Heritage Turkeys on Pasture” workshop went well despite the heat. They were here all day on Monday in the heat but we managed to keep them in the shade for the most part. Organized by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, whose headquarters are in Pittsboro, is an organization founded in 1977 that is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. The ALBC is the group that really has brought the heritage turkey back from the brink of extinction by working with breeders to increase the stock and others like Slow Food to glamorize and popularize the eating of these birds. As all people working to save endangered food species, whether it’s animals or plants, say “you have to eat it to save it”.
Animals are even harder to save for many reasons that one can imagine; size, numbers, room to keep them, etc. While we grow the Bourbon Red turkeys and are part of the food system that is needed to save them, we are not doing the heavy lifting required to really save the breed. The breeders are the ones who keep these animals year round, feeding and caring for them, selecting for the best hens and toms to keep for breeding, and hopefully hatching out enough eggs to make it all worthwhile. This is not like keeping a small vial of seeds to replant next year. This takes lots of room, facilities and skill. To keep enough genetic diversity in a flock, a breeder needs to have 200 hens! So you can see the difficulty, it’s not like raising dogs where you can work with two or three animals and keep a breed going. At this workshop we were fortunate to have the god father of heritage turkeys and the master breeder, Frank Reese, here to lead the discussion. Frank has devoted his life to saving these turkeys. If you have ever had a mail order heritage turkey, it was probably one of Franks as he raises more than anyone else by many many times. This year he and his partners are raising 17,000 birds!
It has been our search for the best quality foods that we can raise in an sustainable system that brings us to things like Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Bourbon Red turkeys. The work done by many people and groups like ALBC, Slow Food, the North American Fruit Explorers, chefs we work with and your experiences that makes it easier for us to find and learn to grow these things. Our job is to interpret the information we get (some times very old), to our farming conditions and system. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t but that’s the nature of farming.