- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

SPARKS, Md. — Looking for a retro turkey for the holidays? Or just a more humanely raised bird?

Chances are there’s a farmer near you looking to help.

Whether it’s heritage breeds or free-range, small farms are catering to those looking for more than the supermarket-variety turkey for their Thanksgiving table.

Baltimore County farmer David Smith says he sells about 500 free-range turkeys a year from his Sparks-based Springfield Farm, including about 200 of the so-called heritage breeds.

Heritage breeds have names like Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Jersey Bluff and Standard Bronze.



Mass production of the broad-breasted variety common today has become so dominant that the four breeds have been listed as endangered by groups such as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Rare Heritage Turkey Association and Slow Food USA.

While the turkeys are usually smaller and leaner, devotees say they taste better.

“It’s the way turkey should taste, the way it was done way back, when these were the only birds they had,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith said he first raised 50 in 2001 at the request of a Baltimore chef, and the interest has grown since.

Heritage turkeys need an additional two to three months to grow, making them more expensive, generally in the $4 to $6 a pound range.

For those reasons, they are generally raised on small farms.

In Maryland, 19 farmers raise and sell turkeys of all types, directly to the consumer.

They account for a small portion of the 750,000 turkeys grown in the state last year, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Cindy Thorne, who runs Zekiah Farms in Charles County with her husband, David, said she raises one heritage variety and one commercial breed.

Her customers are more interested in how her turkeys are raised than what breed they are, she said.

“Whether they’re free-range and what you fed them — the fact that they are naturally raised, that’s what my customers are interested in,” Mrs. Thorne said.

About two dozen customers are buying turkeys this year, the second year the farm has sold them, and they also raise goats for meat, she said.

“Naturally raised meat is becoming a trend for consumers who are discerning about what they are feeding their family,” she said.

Mindy Cawley of Hurry Burry Farm in Frederick County said her customers also care primarily about how the turkey is raised.

“They want to know what they’re fed, that they’re not given antibiotics or hormones, and that they are truly fresh,” Miss Cawley said.

Miss Cawley said the turkeys from her farm are processed the day before they are picked up by customers.

Helping consumers find the right bird is almost as old as the holiday itself and has a long history in Maryland.

In 1941, the USDA developed a smaller turkey breed to meet the needs of the modern American family, which was shrinking, and the smaller refrigerators and ovens of the day.

The Beltsville Small White, named for the USDA farm in Beltsville where it was developed, was a combination of six breeds, including the native wild turkey.

Before the Beltsville White, the average weight of an adult male turkey was 33 pounds, with some reaching 40 pounds.

Hens, meanwhile, averaged 14 pounds, with one breed over 25 pounds.

In comparison, Beltsville White tom turkeys averaged 15 pounds and young hens, 9 pounds.

By the early 1960s, the breed accounted for more than 20 percent of domestic turkey production before other breeds began to replace it, according to the USDA.

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