You are familiar with turkeys: large, hulking birds—so broad that it doesn’t look like those skinny legs should hold them up—that, when basted and roasted, can feed a crowded table of extended family and friends, and also supply a week’s worth of sandwiches and a pot of soup. When they just hatch, however, the poults, as the baby turkeys are called, weigh a fraction of a pound. If you were so inclined, as Bill Niman and his wife Nicolette Hahn-Niman were, you could fit more than 200 of them into the backseat of a car.
Six years ago the couple, an environmental lawyer and animal rights activist, took a serious road trip with that nascent flock, a 1,750-mile drive from Kansas to California. It was about a year after Niman, who started Niman Ranch in 1969 and is to ethically and sustainably raised meats what Alice Waters is to farm-to-table California cuisine, had left the company that still bears his name.
He and his wife started a new business, BN Ranch, in Bolinas, Calif. Beef was the main focus, but after deciding that turkeys would be a good way to diversify the operation, the couple called up Frank Reese, who Niman calls “the foremost breeder of heritage turkeys in the country, if not the world.” Reese said they could buy poults from him, so the Nimans headed for Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, just outside Tampa, Kan. (population: 112). The poults had just hatched when they arrived, emerging from eggs laid by purebred heritage hens certified by the American Poultry Association. These are the thoroughbreds of the heritage turkey world.
The 8,000 birds hatched at BN Ranch this year, comprising Narragansett, Standard Bronze, and Black Spanish turkeys, are all descended from the breeding flock that cross-country road trip established.
Bill Niman and a hen from BN Ranch's breeding flock.
Should a turkey cost $20 or $300? Should it take 16 weeks or more than a year to raise a turkey from poult to slaughter weight?
Most people never ask these questions, but they implicitly answer them when choosing between a Butterball, from the largest producer of turkeys in the country, and some pampered, heritage bird bought from a small farm, the name of the breed befitting a line of J.Crew casual wear. The former has more white meat, the latter possibly presents fewer moral hang-ups for you and your dinner companions. While the $20 versus $300 conundrum will make it an easy choice for most consumers—and it may seem unbelievable that any agricultural product that doesn’t have the word “chez” on the label can vary in price by a factor of 10—the difference in cost is revealed by what goes on down on the farm.
Those pricey birds are more like the wild turkeys the Pilgrims would have encountered in the Wampanoag territory they inhabited in 1621. Benjamin Franklin pitched the turkey as our national bird in 1784. He considered the bird an ideal symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.”
“He is…though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter that year, “and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
Today the U.S. is both the world’s leading producer and leading consumer of its native poultry, with the industry’s output weighing in at 7.32 billion pounds in 2011. Americans ate just over 16 pounds of turkey meat per capita in the same year, the equivalent of an entire medium-size Thanksgiving bird per person—a turkey in every pot indeed.
The evolution of domesticated turkeys from an animal raised seasonally and eaten rarely—Americans consumed less than a pound annually in 1910—to a hallmark of lunch-menu items year-round has been a process of slowing down the birds themselves while cost-effectively speeding their growth. Big Ag has bred away turkeys’ ability to fly and bred in cumbersomely disproportionate breast muscles. Turkeys are too top-heavy to even walk as they near the end of their lives.
“Obviously our price point is going to be higher than other places in town because of the price that we pay for our animal. Yes, it is expensive, but it’s the harsh reality that this is the true cost of what these birds should be.”
In Los Angeles, Amelia Posada, co-owner of the butcher shop Lindy & Grundy, explains the difference between Niman’s heritage and white turkeys in simple, relatable terms. When I was recently in the shop as a customer, I watched her taking a turkey order from behind a butcher case full of grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured chickens, and other more ethically sound meats. Posada has her own terminology for asking a customer what kind of breast he wants of his turkey: Artificially inflated, Hollywood style, or a smaller, more natural, Silver Lake–like breast.
Posada, who mixes a blue blazer and a small anchor hanging off a gold chain with her numerous tattoos in a way that seems perfectly reasonable, spoke with me on the patio her shop shares with the high-minded coffee shop next door. Lindy & Grundy was closed that day, but weaving through the patio tables were a few of Posada’s employees, each decked out in white coveralls and hard hats, moving sides of beef into the shop on the steel hooks of an overhead conveyor tract.
“Obviously our price point is going to be higher than other places in town because of the price that we pay for our animal,” she says of the turkeys they’re selling this year, which will all come from BN Ranch. “Yes, it is expensive, but it’s the harsh reality that this is the true cost of what these birds should be.”
The heritage turkeys, which are slaughtered at 28 weeks, fetch $14 per pound, while the white birds, harvested at 14 weeks, are $9 per pound.
Being able to offer those Hollywood-breasted birds helps democratize Lindy & Grundy’s turkey business, says Posada, who in previous years sourced only far more expensive, heritage turkeys. “Seeing people’s faces when they heard how much they cost was really hard for us,” she remembers. “We don’t want to isolate anyone from being able to get a turkey.”
Bill Niman takes a similar approach at BN Ranch, where heritage and white turkeys live side by side (15,000 of them, this year). Or, rather, enclosure by enclosure: While the heritage breeds will readily fly the coop, a four-foot fence without any kind of overhead netting will keep the flightless breed from running off. “Not only did the industry breed the ability to fly and fuck out of the white birds; they kind of bred the personality out of them too,” Niman says of the modern turkey breeds. “It’s kind of hard to interact with them—they have limited cerebral capacity.”
Niman may be morally opposed to a business model in which, according to Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, 9 of 10 birds are raised indoors. But he can’t help acknowledging that financially, quick-growing breeds make sense. Nevertheless, no antibiotics are used in any breed of Niman’s birds.
“Perhaps it’s rationalization,” Niman says of the decision, encouraged in part by customers, to raise both kinds of turkeys, “but we thought we can provide these white birds the best possible environment they can have. And we thought that until we can convert more people, that’s a service.”
Frank Reese, who raised the forebears of Niman’s current flock back in Kansas, disagrees. In his “treatise,” “On Animal Husbandry for Poultry Production,” he writes that modern breeds, which he refers to as “dead-end birds,” are anathema to ethical ranching. “Any model that breeds rapid-growing poultry that cannot live past 12 months is neither human nor sustainable—for both the poultry and the farmer,” he writes, “and has no place on our farms.”
Unlike the breeding flock, which calls the Nimans’ Bolinas property home, the meat birds are raised on a nearby almond farm BN Ranch leases. In addition to the nut trees, the property is equipped with extensive poultry facilities, where Niman’s turkeys live. “We did convert that farm to what we call free-range,” Niman says, “so they have unlimited access to the outdoors—but they aren’t pastured.”
In the heat of California’s Central Valley, that usually means the turkeys choose to spend much of the night outdoors, moving inside during the hotter hours of the day. Niman said he didn’t know the exact dimensions of the barns or enclosures, but he described the outdoor spaces as being roughly the size of a football field.
Two years ago, in an effort to move away from GMOs, BN moved its birds from a corn- and soy-based diet to a feed made of wheat, sunflower meal, and organic soybeans—a principled, and hugely expensive, switch.
Niman says the close proximity between hatchery, farm, and processing facility, along with a West Coast–based feed supply—his wheat largely comes from the Pacific Northwest, unlike corn that needs to be shipped from the Midwest—allows the Nimans to put as much money as possible toward the animals’ feed and well-being.
“Feed being 70 percent of the cost of raising turkeys, we feel that our feed costs have doubled from if we were feeding them corn and soybeans,” says Niman.
Still, BN Ranch is a comparatively mainstream producer for Posada and her wife and co-owner, Erika Nakamura, who attract famous vegans, animal rights activists, and customers who are simply looking for “the best.” In past years, they’ve offered birds for Turkey Day from far smaller and sometimes far more radical farmers. There’s Rainbow Ranch, the shop’s chicken provider, which raises its pastured turkeys on a diet free of all grain on an integrated desert farm. There, beyond sustainability, permaculture and hugelkultur are the dominant farming ideologies. The turkeys, while singularly delicious, approached $300 for larger birds.
Not only was the high price a hurdle, but Nakamura says the full-scope nature of the operation presented some problems for them during one of the busiest weeks of the year. While it’s preferable, from an animal welfare standpoint, for the birds to be slaughtered on-site, as they are at Rainbow Ranch, the field kill doesn’t result in the most consumer-friendly birds: Heads and feet are still attached, and they arrive at the butcher shop on ice, stuffed into plastic bags.
“I feel in some way guilty, because they’re my farmer,” Posada says of Rainbow Ranch, which continues to supply the shop with chickens. “But I just want to see if this can be a more smooth holiday season.”
Then there’s Schaner Farms, an operation in North San Diego County that’s predominantly focused on produce. Since 1984, Peter Schaner has both made space for and made use of animals on his farm, selling a bit of meat on the side. This year, however, he’s only raising a few turkeys for family and friends.
Schaner, with a close-cropped white beard and weathered skin around his icy blue eyes, says his college-age kids finally got their parents to do a line-item budget, and the livestock didn’t come out a winner. He and his wife don’t have any money set aside for retirement, so they’re putting all of their efforts into fruits and vegetables, which earn them a better profit.
“It wasn’t a significant hit; we were barely breaking even,” he said of the turkey operation. “With these birds, if one dies, it puts you under.”
Regulations, too, are threatening the utilitarian use of animals at an operation like Schaner Farms.
“If we’re going to raise animals, we have to have a totally separate area for them where they can’t, quote-un-quote, and I hate to use this word, cross-contaminate our fruit and vegetable areas,” says Schaner. Indeed, under the draft rules for the Food Safety and Modernization Act released by the Food & Drug Administration, farmers would be restricted from replanting a plot for nine months after letting poultry graze on harvested fields.
“So now we’ll just cut the weeds and bring them to the animals—there’s another extra cost,” he says. Beyond the additional money and labor, the pest control and fertilization that turkeys and other farm animals provide will be lost.
As for the holiday itself, Niman sees the choice between heritage and Butterball strictly in terms of flavor. “Personally, I didn’t even like turkey until I got turned on to these heritage birds,” he says.
“If you really love dark meat, and you love great flavor, and it’s important what you have at the center of the table, it really makes a difference to step up and pay twice as much for a heritage turkey.”