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Heritage Farming

May 22, 2010

I broke my number one rule. But, I think I’m justified. I bought two turkeys from the feed store.

(Insert hisses and boos here, ok, ok.)

I’ve been doing some research on turkeys and, much like all of the other farmed foods here, there aren’t any real turkeys left. We just watched the documentary “King Corn” the other day and it talked about how back in the good ol’ days there was plenty of variety of different kinds of corn. Those were farmed in the U.S. until the era of these massive industrial farms. So, to survive as a farmer, you have to farm one crop and an absurd amount of it. And it has to be high yielding, genetically altered crap. Most of these farmers won’t even eat the corn that they grow, they have a little garden patch with real, edible corn in it to feed their family with. Nice. So what we buy at the store, and even when you go to the garden store to buy seeds to grow your own, you get “Yellow Corn.” It’s actually a bunch of starchy crap that’s better used to make corn starch than to actually cook and eat. You know, when you think about that old heritage, thanksgiving feast, with the pilgrims and the indians… you don’t imagine yellow corn in that cornucopia. It’s red and brown and gold and purple. Where is THAT stuff? Well, it barely exists in the world. No one farms it anymore. But, on the upshot, we have lots of high fructose corn syrup for all of our sodas and juices and just about every other piece of processed, store bought food you could ever want. Celebrate!

That corn tangent has a purpose: The scenario with poultry birds is much the same. Chickens and turkeys started out as wild birds turned domesticated, and they’ve now become domesticated birds turned… something different all together. A few select breeds, chosen and bred further for similar traits. Egg and meat production. (For an interesting read: Temple Grandin talks about the pitfalls of  “single trait breeding” in livestock animals in her book “Animals in Translation”) So now, after generations of breeding and farming just a few varieties of birds, the ‘heritage breeds’ have fallen to the wayside. Heritage breeds are those first domesticated birds, much more like wild birds, and not homogenized into this generic crap that we have now.

When you buy that thanksgiving turkey at Safeway, that is a ‘broad breasted white’ – a meat turkey. Bred for getting huge, fast. It’s a glorious thing, you have this baby turkey, you feed it crap for just a few months, and it weighs 30 pounds and it’s legs have broken under it’s immense body. Again, there’s an upshot to this mutilated version of farming: In record time, for record low costs, you have record amounts of young tender meat to sell. Celebrate!

Now, sarcasm aside, there are very few true Heritage turkey breeds left in our country. Many of them, including the Bourbon Red Turkeys, which is what I bought, are on the “watch” list according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and there are currently fewer than 5,000 breeding Bourbon Red Turkeys left. The owner of the local feed store buys some of these each year hoping that they will catch on. He doesn’t buy “meat bird chicks” as they’re sad, pathetic things that lie face first in their food and wake up periodically to eat, but only if the food is with in beaks range because they’re too tired and fat to move. Even at just a few days old.

So, we have these turkeys, a dying breed, because the general American consumer wants more bang for their buck. These birds are BEAUTIFUL. They just look like little generic chicks now, but you can be sure I’ll post tons of photos when they’re older. Even though we don’t intend to eat them, I think I’d like to hatch some Bourbon Red turkey eggs next year and give them to people who care about farming real animals.

Jared and I have been talking about our garden, in this same respect. Next year, we’d like to do some research ahead of time, and order some older, more natural varieties of crops. Not “yellow corn”. And hopefully, we’ll do some starts of these varieties of foods, so other people around here can farm them too. Who knows if we’ll make any little change, but the whole point is to at least try.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2010 11:13 pm

    Be the change, not try, but do (you’ve got it guys)… and you / we ARE the revolution, it’s happening right now!

    Seed Savers Exchange is a great company, not too late to find a fairly good white corn (as good as it gets anymore). Heirlooms are the way to go!

  2. May 29, 2010 11:22 am

    Jared here. Thanks, Jon! You’re certainly right. Man, yesterday I saw some pics of your chicken operation and it’s simply amazing. Nice work on that coop. Hope you guys are having a good day down at the Estacada Farmers Market.


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