This Thanksgiving, more and more retailers are offering turkeys that were raised sustainably, carrying such labels as free-range, organic and heritage or heirloom. The premium birds — which can cost as much as $10 per pound — appeal to environmentally conscious consumers looking for an alternative to the conventional Butterball.
“In regards to the heirloom, now those are the old-fashioned turkeys. Kind of like back in the Pilgrim days in regards to that,” said Eddie Garcia, general manager of Jimbo’s…Naturally!, a four-unit natural food store based in San Diego.
This year Jimbo’s began selling heirloom turkeys from Diestel Turkey Ranch, a Sonora, Calif.-based producer, in the meat department for $4.49 per pound. The retailer previously offered precooked Diestel turkeys in the deli department and had sold a different heritage bird last year.
“We don’t carry a lot of them. But what we can get in, they do sell out,” said Garcia.
Read more: Many to Celebrate Thanksgiving in Restaurants 
The Hills Market, an independent retailer in Columbus, Ohio, started selling heritage turkeys this year for $6.79 per pound. The Bourbon Red birds from local Tea Hills Organic Farms represent an historical breed that is in danger of extinction, according to Slow Food USA.
Jill Moorhead, the store’s marketing director, said the pricey specialty birds appeal to a certain type of customer, one who is interested in the story behind the turkey. “You’ve got to know exactly what it is you’re getting and understand why you’re getting it. Someone who’s getting a 39-cent frozen Butterball from a chain market would not understand the heritage bird.”
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, the retailer had sold most of its allotment of heritage turkeys through customer preorders.
Another popular option this year was an organic Broad Breasted Bronze from Tea Hills that The Hills Market introduced in 2011.
Moorhead said the Broad Breasted Bronze, which sells for $5.79 per pound, has a lot of the same characteristics as a heritage bird with a lower price tag and the large white breasts that consumers expect from a Thanksgiving turkey. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
The Hills Market chose to sell the local Tea Hills turkeys because the retailer knew there would be a lot of customer interest, said Moorhead. “We have a strong local foods movement [in Columbus]. We have a strong farm-to-table movement.”
Supporting local producers was also a factor for New Seasons Market, a 12-store independent based in Portland, Ore., in adding pasture-raised turkeys from two area farms to its Thanksgiving lineup this year.
“I always try to source things as close to home as possible,” said Alan Hummel, director of meat and seafood.
The local birds, which retail for $4.99 to $5.49 per pound, sold well in preorders. Hummel said this is because local products have “kind of been the bread and butter of our business.”
New Seasons Market also has offered free-range, organic and heirloom turkeys from Diestel since 2000. “We sell them every year, and we sell a tremendous amount,” said Hummel.
Price may be a factor in the Diestel birds’ popularity. Retailing for $1.99 to $4.99 per pound, Hummel said the chain tried to keep this year’s prices comparable to last year’s for consumers, despite cost increases on the supply side. “We’ve kind of held our ground to keep a really high-quality bird at an affordable price so we can reach out to many more consumers,” said Hummel.
On the opposite coast, cost is probably not a driver for customers at Eli’s Manhattan, a specialty food store in New York, where organic turkeys sell for $7.99 per pound and heritage birds go for $9.99 per pound. Eli’s purchases its heritage Bourbon Reds through Heritage Foods USA, a wholesaler based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We teach customers about why they are so special, and how they’re helping with preserving these breeds by purchasing the products,” said Marc Reyes, Eli’s head butcher.
Read more: Meijer Upgrades Meat Department 
Retailers agreed education is important for marketing sustainable turkeys. Hummel said New Seasons Market emphasizes the local farmers when talking to customers. “We talk about our partnership with them. We talk about the families and how they raise the product.”
At The Hills Market, representatives from Tea Hills Organic Farms came by in early November for a tasting of its different turkeys. “We always like having the producers be able to talk directly to the consumer,” said Moorhead.
The demo helped drive preorder sales of the newer turkey options. “I’d say probably half of the orders that we had from Tea Hills Farms came from that tasting,” said Moorhead.
Jimbo’s planned to do a tasting of the Diestel birds the weekend before Thanksgiving and had promoted its sustainable turkeys through in-store brochures and its newsletter, but satisfied customers may be the most effective advertising.
“A lot of it is just word of mouth. And it’s worked out well for us,” said Garcia.
Sidebar: Meijer Claims Cheapest Midwest Turkeys
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Meijer Inc.  claims it will again sell the lowest-priced turkeys per pound in the Midwest this Thanksgiving. The retailer will offer coupons to lower the per pound price. Customers who spend $20 will receive a rebate for $10 off a 10- to 15-pound fresh or frozen turkey or $17 off a 16- to 24-pound turkey. With the rebates, the cost of a 10-pound frozen bird is 49 cents per pound while a 16-pound frozen bird is 43 cents per pound. “With the national average cost of turkeys on the rise due to the summer’s drought, Meijer is proud to have truckloads of turkeys ready for the holidays while driving our prices down so that our customers can provide their families with the best Thanksgiving holiday experience,” Jerry Suter, vice president of fresh merchandise, said in a statement.
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