Talking Turkey with the Godfather of American Poultry

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Frank Reese knows his poultry. After sixty years in the bird biz, he’s known as the Godfather of American poultry. The fourth generation turkey farmer runs the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch alongside his 90-year-old father. With a poultry farm training program in the works and a decorated career that’s far from over, Reese is proof that some people really do have a calling. (Some just cluck louder than most.)

Reese found a few feather-free minutes to discuss the importance of heritage breed turkeys, sustainability and Thanksgiving shopping tips.

Tell us more about the turkeys on Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch.

I raise six varieties of heritage turkey. They’re fed an all-vegetable diet and pasture-raised. There are no herbicides, no pesticides, no antibiotics anywhere in our system. They’re free to run and jump. They sleep up in rafters of the barns and in trees at night.

What is a heritage turkey?

A heritage turkey is a turkey that existed genetically prior to 1950, before they began to genetically engineer turkeys. A true heritage turkey can reproduce through self-breeding, has longevity and a slower rate of growth. They might reach a marketable weight in about 26 to 28 weeks, while mass produced turkeys will reach the same weight (about twenty pounds) in about 12 weeks. You can read more on the American Livestock Association’s site.

Mass produced turkeys can’t breed on their own. They’ve been drastically altered through genetic mutations, so they have these short legs and huge breasts; the toms can’t mount the hens. Their skeletal structure can’t support their bodies; they die on their own in six months.

What are the benefits of heritage turkeys?

Heritage turkeys are a million times better in terms of animal welfare. They’re also more nutritious: higher in protein and Omega-3’s, and lower in cholesterol.

Plus, we need biodiversity. All the chickens and turkeys being raised by the billions worldwide are one genetic animal. Heritage animals have far superior immune systems. We don’t use antibiotics and we don’t have to; they’re healthy.

What should people look for when shopping for a turkey?

[It’s ideal to] know your farmer. See how the animals are raised. It they’re not willing to be open, up front and even let you visit, what are they hiding?

The only way you know you’re getting a true heritage turkey is if you find an APA (American Poultry Association) seal on the package. If you go out and buy a turkey that’s organic and antibiotic-free, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean that those turkeys had good lives. Unless it’s a heritage turkey, the parents of that turkey were fed tons of antibiotics and it still came from a factory hatchery. Authentic heritage turkeys are the only ones that can reproduce naturally.

Where can readers find your turkeys? 

Heritage Foods USA sells them online and distributes them to chefs. Gourmet Garage and Dean & Deluca’s online catalog also carries our turkeys. Mary’s Turkeys and Niman Ranch, both in California, got their turkeys from me.

Does heritage poultry taste different? Any cooking tips?

Heritage turkeys have darker meat. (White meat means it was unable to oxygenate that muscle.) The darker the meat, the healthier the animal and the more nutritious it is for you. Heritage meat tastes totally different than industrial dark meat. It’s rich, dark and intense; a little more like steak. If you roast it correctly, the meat should fall off the bone. You can read Chef Steve Pope’s heritage poultry cooking tips at Heritage Chef. And don’t throw out the carcass! You can make such wonderful food with the leftovers.

Image courtesy of Heritage Foods USA.

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