NEW YORK -- Spurred by the popularity of the slow food movement, consumers are gobbling up heritage turkeys at a rate that's anything but sluggish.
"About 15% of the turkeys I'll sell [this Thanksgiving] are going to be heritage turkeys," said Pete Davis, senior director, meat, seafood and sushi at 11-store Bristol Farms, Carson, Calif. "I don't want to run out of them this year but it's fine and dandy if I do because it creates higher demand and more mystique."
More than 50 years ago, turkey breeds, including Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze and Narragansett, were replaced by the Broad Breasted White, the mild-flavored bird most consumers enjoy on Thanksgiving.
Three years ago, heritage breeds re-emerged as a more naturally-bred alternative to mass-produced turkeys. A handful of upscale retailers introduced the old-fashioned birds. Unlike Broad Breasted Whites, these turkeys have a slower rate of growth, longer life and the ability to mate on their own.
Retailers and turkey breeders credit the slow food movement with boosting the popularity of heritage turkeys, which have considerably more dark meat than a traditional bird, and a gamier flavor. The movement's objective is to preserve time-intensive and ecologically sensitive food production.
"This slow food thing is right up our alley," Davis said. "But when I first read about [heritage turkeys] in trade publications I literally couldn't get my hands on one to try it myself."
Bristol Farms, which began selling Bourbon Red and Narragansett turkeys in 2003, expects to sell 1,200 heritage birds this year, 200 more than were sold last year. "Demand is especially popular with baby boomers," Davis said. "I'm kind of an older guy and the flavor of [heritage turkey] reminds me of what it tasted like [pre-1950s]." Mollie Stone's Markets, an upscale Mill Valley, Calif.-based chain, was sold on the idea of heritage turkeys by a local breeder in 2003, said David Bennett, co-owner of the eight-store chain.
"The breeder explained how creation of a market for these breeds gives suppliers a reason to keep growing them," he said. "We like supporting smaller farmers and breeders. Demand for the turkeys keeps growing. We increased our order last year but still sold out of them."
Bennett estimated Mollie Stone's will sell just under 1,000 turkeys this year. The retailer buys the birds for $3, and sells them at retail for $3.99 a pound. The birds typically retail for $4 to $6 per pound.
The higher prices are the result of the way the turkeys are raised. It's more labor-intensive and costly than raising an "industrial" bird, said Frank Reese Jr., a farmer and owner of Lindsborg, Kan.-based Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, the largest heritage turkey farm in the country.
Broad Breasted White "suppliers can get a 20-pound turkey in 12 weeks, while it takes [heritage breeders] six to seven months to raise a turkey," he said. "There is a big difference in the cost of feeding a turkey for six months, especially when it's out running free in the pastures, exercising, jumping and getting in the trees."
Economies of scale also work against small breeders.
"My farm is raising 10,000 heritage turkeys this year," Reese said. "What we're [producing] in a full year with four farmers, a major company like ConAgra is doing during their coffee break."
Still, greater demand for the turkeys allowed Reese to drop the wholesale price of the birds by 50 cents this year. "We've gotten more efficient at farming them and we're able to buy feed at much larger quantities," he said.
Companies have contacted him with proposals for specialty products like an all-natural heritage turkey hot dog. He also was approached by two national supermarket chains, which he declined to identify.
"They'd probably start out with smaller quantities of between 10,000 and 20,000 turkeys but they'd have to let us know in February or March so that we could grow them," in time for Thanksgiving, he said.