An Effort To Preserve Heritage Turkey Breeds

Nov 25, 2013
Originally published on November 25, 2013 3:53 pm

If you’re buying a turkey in a grocery store this year, you’re probably getting a breed of turkey called Broad Breasted White. That breed makes up most of the turkeys raised by commercial farmers in the U.S.

But if everyone is eating the same type of bird, what happens to the other breeds farmers used to raise?

Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Ryan Walker of The Livestock Conservancy, which is working to preserve heritage breeds so they don’t die out.


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If you're buying a turkey in a grocery store this year, you're probably getting a type of bird called a Broad Breasted White. It makes up most of the turkeys raised by commercial farmers in the U.S. But if everyone is eating the same type of bird, what happens to the overall genetic diversity of turkeys? Well, enter The Livestock Conservancy, a group that wants to preserve heritage breeds that farmers don't focus on all that much anymore.

So that turkeys, these heritage breeds and their genetic diversity, don't die out. Ryan Walker is with The Livestock Conservancy, and he joins us from their offices in Pittsboro, North Carolina. And Ryan, first of all, describe a heritage breed for us. Do they look different than most commercial turkeys?

RYAN WALKER: The heritage breeds are a lot of different colors. They range anywhere from black to gray to kind of a lavender blue color. The commercial birds are all white. They are all one single variety of turkey. The commercial birds are also giants. They grow, you know, these huge breasts because the movement in America in the past 60 to 70 years has been toward a lot of white meat.

CHAKRABARTI: As interest has grown across the United States, in terms of people looking for more organic or free range poultry especially, has interest grown in these heritage breeds as well? Can most people get one if they're looking for one?

WALKER: It has, yes. And if they reserve them early, they can.


WALKER: For the most part they're not raised on huge scales in one single location, like a lot of the commercial birds are. It's smaller farms that are producing them, and they need to know ahead of time because they do take longer to grow.

CHAKRABARTI: Ryan, I have to say that hearing you describe them in their colorful, shimmering plumage, it makes them sound...

WALKER: In all their brilliance.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It makes them sound almost too beautiful to eat. But here's the, you know, the $50,000 question: how do they taste? Do they taste better than regular turkeys?

WALKER: They do. If you're looking for white meat, there will be some, but not as much. Heritage turkeys, they're usually free range. They're out foraging about, you know, walking around in the pasture area. All that movement, that develops dark meat. And that dark meat retains a lot of the nutrients that white meat doesn't. Those nutrients kind of convert over to flavor. You know, I haven't met anyone who doesn't love it. You do have to cook it a little differently. You have to cook it a little bit lower heat and slower than you would another commercial turkey. But as long as it's done right, it's absolutely amazing.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, what is the main or most important reason why you think these heritage breeds ought to be preserved?

WALKER: Well, really, it all boils down to genetic diversity. I think Americans in general, have lost track of where their food comes from. I think a lot of people just put everything in the hands of farmers and assume that they would carry on and take care of the big issues, like genetic diversity and parasite resistance and, you know, ability to reproduce naturally. But it's all kind of morphed into this commercial industrial agriculture.

But whenever you start getting into monocultures, like the Irish potato famine, for instance, you know, they were all using one variety of potato. A blight came, wiped out the potatoes and then a lot of people starved. And we really don't focus on the doomsday scenario much, but whenever the genetic pool gets smaller and smaller, you do have a lot more issues. You know, and that's really probably the main reason why we promote heritage breeds.

CHAKRABARTI: Ryan Walker is with The Livestock Conservancy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Thanks so much for joining us today.

WALKER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.