BRADFORD, Ark. (AP) — Carey Robertson spent the afternoon 10 days before Thanksgiving ferrying a heritage turkey to its new home.
The bird was lucky. Unlike some of his fellows raised at CWC Farm in Bradford, in northern White County, the turkey wasn't destined for a dinner table this year. Instead, it was purchased to be a pet of sorts for a hobby farmer.
Heritage turkeys differ greatly from the standard birds that will grace most American tables this Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To classify as a heritage turkey, the bird must be one of eight varieties listed in the American Poultry Association's Standard for Perfection. Most of those varieties were accepted in 1874. Heritage breeds share three key requirements: natural mating, a long productive outdoor life span, and a slow growth rate, according to the American Livestock Breed Conservancy website.
Over the years, heritage turkeys fell out of favor with consumers and turkey growers, who preferred their more modern relatives, and the standards for the birds slipped.
But heritage varieties are slowly making a comeback, and their numbers are increasing nationally, according to the American Livestock Breed Conservancy.
In Arkansas, heritage turkeys are still a tiny niche, but efforts are under way to increase consumer interest in the birds and keep the birds genetically strong.
Jeannette Beranger, research and technical program manager with the Livestock Breed Conservancy, said that in 1997 there were only 1,300 breeding-age heritage turkeys in the U.S., but by 2006 there were 10,000. She said that more recently, the upward trend has leveled off because of high feed costs.
However, "they've made their way back to the table," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://is.gd/EOh1nj).
P. Allen Smith of Little Rock, a professional gardener who hosts television shows and has written books, thinks heritage turkeys should be preserved through carefully controlled breeding and by making the birds commercially viable for small farmers.
"These are birds who are out of work," Smith explained.
Smith founded the Arkansas-based Heritage Poultry Conservancy in 2009. In addition to other preservation activities, the conservancy encourages breeding of heritage turkeys through a series of poultry shows where premiums, or cash rewards, are paid to top exhibitors.
This year at the Arkansas State Fair, more than 100 turkeys were shown, highlighting heritage birds. It was the largest turkey competition in the nation, Smith said.
He said heritage breeds are becoming more popular with farmers, but getting the birds in front of consumers is vital if the movement is to continue. Availability is still a problem, he said.
For consumers who find the birds, the payoff is taste, Smith said.
He described the meat as juicy and leaner than conventional turkey.
"It has a marvelous flavor," he said.
Smith raises Blue Slate and Black Spanish heritage turkeys at his Moss Mountain Farm outside Little Rock, where he sells and butchers about 60 birds a year. Some of the birds go to select restaurants. He also provides eggs to Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch Inc. of Tampa, Kan., where adult birds sell for about $10 a pound and are shipped nationwide, according to the company website.
As for cooking a heritage turkey, Smith suggests brining it - or marinating it in salty water - for 24 hours, and roasting it longer and more slowly than a traditional bird. He said none of the turkey is wasted when it makes its way to his kitchen. Every scrap is used.
Robertson has been raising heritage turkey strains, including Blue Slates, Bourbon Reds, and Bronzes, Royal Palms and New Hollands, for three years at CWC Farm.
She runs the farm with her husband, Bill. They primarily sell poults, or young birds, to farmers interested in raising the heritage breeds. They also offer full-grown birds for the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.
She said she's never advertised and does most of her business by word of mouth and repeat customers who savor the unique flavor of the birds.
"They're very easy to sell," Robertson said.
The Robertsons started CWC in 2007. Before that Carey Robertson worked as a county extension agent in Benton, Crawford and Sebastian counties for 12 years.
This season, CWC Farm sold about 160 poults to be used as breeding birds. The birds were sold mostly through the advertising website Craigslist.
The farm will also sell about 30 fully grown live birds for Thanksgiving. The buyers will take the birds and process them themselves.
Robertson explained that the lack of commercial processing facilities for the birds limits the scale of her operation. She added that heritage turkeys take longer to mature, and high feed costs have made things more difficult in recent years.
"If you want fast and cheap, you have to go conventional," Robertson said.
Her heritage birds tend to range between 10 to 15 pounds, though some are as large as 30 pounds. She charges $25 to $55 per bird.
Robertson said the shape of the heritage birds is different. They are longer and leaner, and not breast-heavy like modern turkeys. They also have darker skin.
CWC Farms also raises grass-fed cattle, lambs and goats, and took a real hit this year because of the summer heat and drought.
"It was a train wreck," Robertson said. "But our turkeys did well."
The heritage turkey market in Arkansas consists mostly of small farmers and those dedicated to maintaining the breed standards, said Keith Bramwell, an extension reproductive physiologist with the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
He said the trend is the natural extension of a movement by people who want to raise their own meat and eggs at their homes.
Raising the turkeys for sale as food is challenging, he added.
The turkeys cost more to raise, since they grow more slowly; they're generally not as big and are expensive compared with standard birds, so some consumers shy away from them; and because of they usually spend time foraging, the turkeys tend not to be as tender as the meat of modern birds.
But, Bramwell said, he is seeing more small operations selling birds for holidays, noting that some consumers seem willing to pay premium prices to serve the unusual birds at special meals.
Cody Hopkins, who owns Falling Sky Farm in Marshall, about 60 miles north of Conway, once raised and sold heritage turkeys but has switched to nonstandard hybrid turkeys that are pasture-raised. He said he'll sell about 400 turkeys through direct sales in central Arkansas this year.
Hopkins said he shifted from heritage birds mostly because of the cost of raising them and the price point for consumers. He said consumers seem to want a bird with more breast meat.
Hopkins sells his turkeys dressed for about $4 a pound, considerably higher than a supermarket bird, but he said consumers seem willing to pay the price.
"I would have to charge at least $2 more a pound for a heritage bird," he said.
Terrell Spencer, a Fayetteville-based poultry specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which supports sustainable agriculture, said heritage turkeys have an appeal that reaches beyond "foodies" or diners who want to make a statement about where their food comes from.
Spencer noted that the special birds are steeped in tradition and are a way to step back in time.
"This is probably the type of bird your grandfather ate when he sat down at Thanksgiving," Spencer said.
Laura Undem, owner of Flying A Farms in Morrow, southwest of Fayetteville in Washington County, keeps seven Bourbon Red heritage turkeys. The birds wander her farm, eating bugs, roosting outside and, when the time is right, laying eggs that hatch.
Undem charges $50 for eight of those fertilized eggs, shipping them around the country to other people interested in raising heritage turkeys.
Her four hens lay eggs between March and June, and again from September through November. She said the hens lay about a dozen eggs per week.
"It's a great side business," she said.
For nearly 20 years, Flying A Farm was known for raising and training miniature horses and began its rare-breed poultry operation in 2008. The farm features a variety of heritage poultry, including chickens, ducks, quail and guineas.
Undem said the heritage turkeys were a fine addition to the farm. She noted that they're hardy and survive well in a free-range lifestyle.
"Our big tom turkey, Larry Bird, walks my kids to the bus stop," she said.
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com