It’s a Good Idea to Eat a Rare Bird on Thanksgiving
“Did you know they almost went extinct?”
Jessica Isbrecht is talking about the 98-member gang of heritage breed turkeys that erupt in an exultant, collective sound not unlike a coven of cackling witches. The sound does not go gobble gobble.
Nor does it seem hard to believe these birds almost went the way of the dodo. With prehistoric, bumpy caruncle-covered blue faces, droopy red snoods, and, on the Standard Bronze turkeys, black and white–frilled feathers like French lingerie, the flock could be from another planet, if not another time.
This is Isbrecht’s third year raising turkeys at Green Duchess Farm, making her part of the movement to preserve what was a dying breed. When The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of heritage farm animal breeds, tallied the number of heritage turkeys in 1997, there were only 1,335 breeding birds in the U.S.—a number that led the group to declare the birds critically endangered. Nearly 20 years later, with help from a team of key players, including Slow Food USA and small farmers like Isbrecht, there were 10,404 reported in 2006’s turkey census. At Green Duchess Farm, supporting the turkeys’ continued recovery is fitting work for a venture that began as a gesture of memory and self-preservation.
“I started farming as a way to heal after the death of my mother,” Isbrecht said as we walked over stiff November grasses. She wore a waffle-knit Henley the same color as the wide, flat sky. She leases eight acres from a farm in Franklin Township, New Jersey, that once covered 300 and supplied eggs to New York City restaurants at the turn of the last century. Two-thirds of that land is now the Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve, and the remainder has been planted with native grasses that provide habitat for ground-nesting birds. But where the turkeys forage, the wild grasses surrounding the farm are kept in check by the birds’ efficient weeding. The area they were just moved from was as close-clipped as a spring lamb.
Sheep were never part of Isbrecht’s business plan, but turkeys always were. In the beginning farmer program at Northeast Organic Farming Association, Isbrecht and her farmer-mentor decided turkeys would be a good fit for Green Duchess, given the limited infrastructure the animals required.
“Buying the electric netting, building some housing, getting some feeders and waterers—that was all I really needed to get started,” she said. She estimates she spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on the turkeys her first year, when she raised 44 birds. The pattern is becoming familiar now: In the first weeks of April, she receives day-old hatchlings; her customers place their preorders in September and pick up dressed birds just before Thanksgiving. But her first November, she was flying both blind and solo. That year, Isbrecht carried her bathroom scale out into the field to estimate the finished weight of each turkey, and just before Thanksgiving, she slaughtered the birds herself.
“I learned from that first experience that it’s very low stress on the birds but high stress on me,” she said. “My profit margin, when all was said and done, was very, very small.”
Isbrecht has a little bit more help now—one full-time employee helps her on the farm, and USDA-certified Goffle Road Poultry Farm handles processing. That doesn’t mean Green Duchess Farm is now your standard turkey operation. For one, heritage breeds are slower-growing than the Broad Breasted White, the most popular breed of domesticated turkey, which you’ll find wrapped in Butterball-branded plastic in the supermarket refrigerator case. Those birds are bred to mature in about half the time of heritage breeds, and they can’t fly, which makes them more cost effective for farmers to raise and consumers to buy. But rapid growth and overdeveloped breasts have affected the birds: They must be artificially inseminated to reproduce and can have difficulty walking due to brittle bones that can’t support their body mass.
Behind the $10-per-pound heritage breed price tag is double the feed and labor and, on the table, a richer flavor. Along the way, there’s also exponentially more drama.
“It literally is like high school in here,” Isbrecht said of her turkeys, which include Bourbon Reds and Holland Whites in addition to the Standard Bronzes. Unlike the Broad Breasted White, her birds reach sexual maturity before slaughter, so there is a lot of fighting. The loose flesh on their faces is made of erectile tissue, and the turkeys will rip at each other’s faces with their beaks.
“It’s also a way they communicate—who has the biggest snood,” Isbrecht said, laughing.
For her customers, the effort is worth it. Isbrecht has sold out of her turkeys the past two years. Fingers crossed, this year, her biggest yet, will prove the same.
The holiday marks a season of change at the farm. Two horses—one black, one white—stand in a nearby pasture, their necks stretched toward the short, dry grasses. They are among the various animals—along with week-old baby piglets, as well as ducks, llamas, and geese—that will soon be relocated to a more affordable piece of land at Duke Farms. It’s a bittersweet move, Isbrecht said, but she and her farm have already weathered so much. The black horse, Mackensie, belonged to Isbrecht’s mother. Growing up, they weren’t much into the big Thanksgiving meal, Isbrecht said, but she and her mother would always try to head out for a ride.
Isbrecht anticipates she will be back in the fields working this year after the last Thanksgiving turkey is sold off. Farmers so rarely observe national holidays, but they do love traditions. Hopefully, she will find herself on horseback.